Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Death of Multiracialism in South Africa

Undeterred by the pressure he has come under for his comments about coloureds in the Western Cape, presidential spokesperson Jimmy Manyi offered up a pathetic second hand apology which he didn't release himself, and in which he doesn't in fact apologise at all. Yet this is not over. Recordings have emerged that showcase, Jimmy Manyi attacking the demographic non-representivity in South African organisations. Stating that "Indians should be having only 3%, they are currently sitting at 5.9", he went on to ascribe this 'lopsidedness' to the "bargaining power" of Indians, reinforcing the stereotype that all Indians are business-minded shysters who weasle their way into the graces of those in power - you know the stereotype; all Indians are fast-talking shoe salesmen from Grey street who make you think you're getting a bargain while walking off with a 10 000% profit. I am sick of being treated this way - both by white middle class ignorants and by black sceptics who don't have a clue about how democracy was won in this country, and who won it.

Perhaps if he actually took the time to understand South African Indian history he might have something more intelligent to say about it, but as it stands, his solution is simple - replace everybody, and now. So go for it, I say. Please, go ahead and turn South Africa into a Uganda or a Zimbabwe ... and when you've sucked all the minerals out of the ground, used up all the water, have no electricity left with which to run businesses, those very same people you are alienating would be long gone, working in companies located all over the world, using their skills to make some other country rich. In fact, why not just burn everything to the ground right now, and save us the trouble of having to listen to another stupid one-dimensional rant.

Yes, transformation hasn't worked. In fact, it has failed dismally at the organisational and institutional levels of South Africa, but Jimmy Manyi's diagnosis and prognosis is completely misguided. Simply replacing everyone is not going to bring about the diversity and pluralism that we require to remain competitive in what is now a global economy in which we are wholly outcompeted on all sides. We are fast becoming an undiversified economy that would scarcely be able to maintain growth despite our large mineral resources (which by the way, we are selling off at higher volumes but at cheaper rates, contributing less and less to overall GDP). We lack skills - more than anything - and unless we have the skills that make us competitive in the new global economic order we will ultimately fail to bring about all the material, social and cultural benefits that we seek.

I am also frustrated at the lack of transformation in South African institutions and organisations, and I also want to see long overdue changes happen, but the simple fact is that we've gone about it all the wrong way. We have had seventeen long years to educate a new generation, yet instead we botched up the school system, failed to open up the universities, and ignored the needs of a whole emerging generation at the same time. We should have bitten the bullet and made education free at all levels (primary, secondary, tertiary) in order to cultivate a new young stock of skilled young people who could make us more competitive and secure. But we decided to take an incremental approach, and everybody but the black diamonds (like Manyi himself) fell through the cracks of the new South Africa.

We should have been building a skills base that could replace ageing top-level management within our institutions, and that could fill the age-gap that still exists in our organisations (i.e. of people between the ages of 35 and 55). We should have been focussing on building and maintaining diverse teams and organisations that understand what pluralism is, and have the support they need to achieve. We should have been building small to medium enterprises that can be black owned. But instead, we put together the employment equity bill - which in its original form was extremely liberal and trusting - it gave businesses the opportunity to set it's own targets and to be judged on meeting those.

The result was inevitable, the educated black elite surfed the upper levels of corporates, moving jobs every few years to take on larger sized packages and it became all about the money and not about building organisations or about building a future we can believe in. In short, it became a scramble for wealth, and as the elites moved off into their bright new South Africa, hidden away in the urban enclaves of the priviledged, dining on fine food and wines, eating sushi off naked bodies and spending liberally on recreation and entertainment, the South African dream has become a nightmare for the great majority of people who have joined the 'bottom billion' on the planet.

We have shed 1 million jobs since 2009 alone. We had already shed countless jobs by the early noughties, due to privatising and deregulating early on in our new dispensation. We lack jobs in the skilled and semi-skilled levels of the economy, but due to the large growth in our tertiary sectors it is mainly the educated elites that have benefited from growth. The result is that South Africa has one of the largest Gini coefficients in the world (which measures the level of inequality in a society). We need job creation at the levels where they are needed most, and we also need to thoroughly educate and skill people so that they have socio-economic mobility.

But what Manyi is doing is outrageous - he is attacking those who stood side by side in the struggle with black Africans. He fails to understand how important the UDF was in ensuring that the transition that was brokered actually came about, and he fails to understand that his comments are a betrayal to those people. I was there. I saw the fear, the bravery and the suffering of people who sacrificed greatly, across all races, to bring about this democracy. And now we are expected to let this Idi Amin ignorance reign supreme - to let farce replace politics in South Africa. He has no understanding of black consciousness - the ideology that was quickly and firmly jettisoned out of the new South African political arena in favour of neoliberal policy positions - and I am sure that Steve Biko is turning in his grave, wondering how things could have gone so wrong.

The youth league, to its credit, distanced itself from what it called Manyi's "unfortunate comments" in their statement received today, and re-asserted it's belief in a multi-racial South Africa. Yet they could do more than sit on the fence - they can actually take a position, and tell Manyi where to get off. Instead, they've closed ranks, choosing to attack Trevor Manuel instead, saying that since Manyi had apologised there was no need to attack him. Yet the apologies are through second hand representatives, and are essentially a meaningless in the context of his comments on Indians and the like.

The Youth League can be at the forefront of the drive for free education (at all levels) in South Africa, but they're too busy counting up their gold shares and performing for journalists cameras than they are interested in the well-being and prosperity of the next generation. They clearly believe that politics is about spin, yet they are wrong. Yes, we have come through an era of spin-doctoring in politics, which was easy to pull off in the post-cold war, new media environment. Tony Blair and George Bush were prime exponents of this kind of politics - but where are they today? Bush is being investigated for war crimes and Blair has been hauled before two inquiries about why they went to war on Iraq. To add to that, the fall of the middle east dictators should make it clear that the era of spin has reached a tipping point, and the momentum is now moving against it. That momentum has been created by people who have been ripped off by their governments and leaders for so long that there is no option but to revolt. This uninformed, short-term thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place, and it is hardly likely to get us out of it.

Many of us have argued vehemently for more change in South African organisations and institutions, and both white and black upper management regarded us with the attitude that we were idealistic youth who didn’t understand ‘how the world really works’. We, collectively, made clear warnings about a second wave of resistance emerging from the marginalised in South Africa, especially the youth (I even wrote to the papers to get these opinions into the public domain). But it all went by largely unacknowledged because South Africans were busy playing the 'everything is just fine' game that Gaddafi is now playing. Well now you can deal with Mr Manyi, and judging from the laughter in the audience in response to his comments, more is yet to come.

We need more from our leaders than this rubbish, and we deserve more. Manyi isn't leading anyone anywhere but to mutual destruction. Does nobody have the courage, except Trevor Manuel, to take this on? Where is the ANC that we all believed in and rallied around, sacrificing life, limb and wealth to support? Where are you now? Are you going to stand by and watch our vision of a truly plural and diverse society melt away into spite and hatefulness?

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