Mpumelelo Mkhabela: DA daunted by our ugly past
No nation, narrowly or broadly defined, has a perfect history. Some pasts are so ugly citizens would go to the extent of trying to embellish them by interpretation or simply lying about that which they can't change.
Some would even glorify an ugly past to mitigate the guilt of their ancestors for contributing to that past.
South Africa has its own ugly past of state-sanctioned racial discrimination. Blacks were discriminated against to the point that, almost a quarter of a century since legalised discrimination was abolished, it is still a headline story that so and so is the "first black" in this and that profession or enterprise.
While the "first black" phenomenon is a cause for celebration as a mark of achievement, it also serves as a reminder of the distance we still have to travel way beyond Madiba's long walk to freedom. We are more likely to produce many "first blacks" in many aspects of national life for years to come.
The history of race-based exclusion is horrifying to any sensible person regardless of their race. However important the rear-view mirror, the future is not about the past. It is about what is to be done to correct the legacy of the ugly past that is reflected in the rear-view mirror in the process of building something.
South Africa chose a path of acknowledging the injustices of the past in the Constitution without condemning the beneficiaries of race-based policies to the collective guillotine of retribution. In the Constitution, we chose the most sensible path befitting of a politically civilised country where all its citizens, regardless of background, are equal and have equal worth.
But through the Constitution, we also imposed an obligation on ourselves to "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person". We know, through our ugly history, that black people as a group had their potential artificially suppressed.
Whenever blacks had made progress against all odds, it was carefully controlled and curtailed, lest they may learn the ways of the Europeans whose progress they were legally obliged to aid. They had to be put in their place as the subhuman race.
Those who detest our ugly past and who hate to talk about it are already saying, "please spare us from the obsession with race; we want to move on with our lives". But it would be impossible to make steady progress in overcoming the legacy of the past unless we confront it, even if doing so may from time to time feel tiresome to some.
This doesn't mean that the past should be used as an object of ridicule by crooks who have made it their career to suck the blood of the poor in ways that entrench rather than eradicate the legacy of injustice.
One of the problems we face as a country is that opportunities to deal with the past are being wasted through corruption and total waste of state resources which, to a large extent, are meant to ensure that the "human dignity" for all that the Constitution guarantees is achieved.
The use of taxpayers' money to correct the legacy of the past is not entirely the whole story. Private citizens, companies, non-governmental organisations, churches, political parties and other institutions should all make a contribution.
Some of these institutions are often caught in fights over the methods, pace and meaning of correcting the wrongs of the past. For example, non-governmental organisations are consistently waging legal fights with government to force the latter to fulfil its constitutional obligations, particularly towards poor black people.
Many companies, including those led by executives who believe that addressing the legacy of the past is a matter for politicians, have been slow in doing their part.
Whenever allegations of government corruption surface such company executives are happy to point out the mess caused by the government almost as if it's a good reason for them not to do their part. They would rather behave in a way that would be expected of companies operating in a country not saddled with the kind of legacy that South Africa has.
But corruption in government and slow transformation in the private sector are not the only problems. In fact, the good thing is that there is almost universal agreement that corruption is a problem and that the private sector also need to speed up transformation initiatives.
It is therefore difficult to understand why some leaders of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, are still debating whether or not the legacy of apartheid requires specific interventions. DA leader Mmusi Maimane had to defend himself against attacks when he spoke about white privilege.
Ongoing debates within the party, which have since spilled into the public domain, suggest some of its public representatives are not even debating the modalities of black economic empowerment – which is what they should be talking about if they want to differentiate themselves from the rival ANC or at least hold the ANC to account.
Instead, they are questioning its validity. This stems from the fact that the party claims that as a liberal organisation it doesn't believe in race-based policies. And it doesn't believe in quotas or targets.
But it is yet to articulate an alternative method to quantify progress – or lack thereof – in addressing the legacy of legalised oppression. If the effects of legalised oppression can be quantified why shouldn't the methods and the outcomes of redress?
The fact that people in the ANC-led government corrupted BEE and turned it into an elite political enrichment scheme doesn't mean that the principle of BEE itself is irrelevant. In fact, in the ANC alliance there are debates about how to deal with corruption and self-enrichment by elites.
Yet, the debates within the DA suggest that the party is unsure about how to deal with the legacy of the past which still manifests itself in spatial patterns, income trends and the "first black" phenomenon.
As it turns out, the DA's "first black" head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, is at the centre of the debate within the party. The party's "first black" leader Maimane seems to be struggling to get the party to share his vision on redress.
Recommended reading for all members of the DA's federal executive:
A History of Inequality in South Africa: 1652 – 2002, by Sampie Terreblanche (UKZN Press).
- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.
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