How relevant should race be in post-apartheid South Africa?
Lindiwe Mazibuko, Parliamentary Leader of the Democratic Alliance
13 March 2012
I am grateful to have been invited here this evening to speak on a topic that defines our time. The response of South Africa's political and social leadership to the question of how relevant race is to our post-apartheid dispensation is arguably more fundamental than matters related to public policy. Indeed, our public policy-making unfolds within the context of this debate.
This question is transformational in the truest sense of the word, and its outcome will determine the success of our entire nation-building project. I would like to establish the contours of my speech by clearly stating a truth which is greater than party politics.
The only way we will ever be able to build one, united nation is if each community - be it formed upon political, racial, ethnic, religious or other lines - makes the defence of the rights of other communities part of its daily life.
We all know that the issue of race today is polarising our political system and choking rational decision-making. It was not always so in our young democracy.
At the dawn of democracy in 1994, many feared that President Nelson Mandela’s and the Freedom Charter’s vision of a non-racial South Africa would fragment, Afrikaner and African Nationalism would clash and over 350 years of racial and ethnic enmity would be perpetuated.
President Mandela knew that the pain and the divisions were so deep on both sides of the racial divide, that only a national process of truth and reconciliation could begin to heal our country. He saw that both reconciliation and redress were national necessities, and that without these twin imperatives, fear and hatred would continue to rule our hearts and minds.
He provided us with the tools of reconciliation: encouraged us, against our worst instincts, to choose unity, empathy, and forgiveness over division, callousness and revenge.
What he could not do was oversee and ensure the sustainability of this process. Over time Mandela's name has, saint-like, become synonymous with these concepts. There is also a reason that the so-called "Mandela-era" of our young democracy's development has taken on almost mythical proportions - because our country has since become deeply re-racialised.
Former-President Thabo Mbeki, despite many achievements during his term of political office, appealed to the basest notions of African nationalism in his attempt to invert colonial discourses. The re-racialisation of our politics owes a great deal to his presidential politics.
Today race is still used as a political mobilising strategy. This is made worse by the intrinsic evil of racism. Let us not flinch from using the word ‘evil’ here. Racism overturns the belief that all men and women are equal.
It is the ugliest, most perverted, and dehumanising ideology ever visited on humanity. It has scarred the lives of countless millions, wrecked communities, and rendered many people victims. Racism imprisons the perpetrators in prejudice and hatred, and sets back the progress of entire societies. It must be condemned and stamped out at all times and in all places.
Tragically, however, race today has become a camouflage for the real anger that millions of South Africans feel about lack of delivery. This anger is directed at the lack of qualified teachers and text books available for young learners in schools; at the theft of state resources by public officials; at graft and tenderpreneurs; at joblessness; at incompetence in the public service; and at the unnecessary and preventable burdens of disease and death.
This leads us towards the danger of replicating the same assumptions about racial identity which were made under apartheid, in the crafting of our social policies.
Apartheid’s engineers treated different race groups as if they were homogenous groups. Today, it has likewise become common practice to refer to ‘the poor’ as if they are one homogeneous group. ‘Class’, like ‘race’ and ‘culture’, is not immutable. We cross these barriers every day of our lives.
And so the DA cannot see how the answer to South Africa’s present crisis of confidence can be to replicate this short-sightedness: to view entire racial groups, genders, religious and other groups as homogenous, immutable entities, rather than individuals with histories, merits and faults of their own.
This race refrain has the potential to sap our collective will to find imaginative solutions to complex, large-scale problems.
The DA believes that it is at the intersection of education and the economy that we will rebuild our country. South Africa will not be the country it can be until we fix our schools so that every child gets a decent education, and everybody gets to participate in a non-racial economy.
I also wish to address head on a fallacy about the DA that frequently takes on a racial overtone. We know that the vast majority of South Africans rely on public services and the power of the government to create an opportunity environment.
Our desire to see individuals go as far as their talents will take them does not, as some have suggested, cross over into a lack of compassion for those who are left behind.
Yet, when the DA asks about the proper role of government in promoting diversity and building social capital, our love for this country is questioned.
This question, of course, also arises in the debate pertaining to the University of Cape Town’s admissions policy.
While it is not my intention to immerse myself in this difficult saga, I am of the view that the school quintile system is the most efficient and effective way to target entrenched disadvantage in Higher Education. Using the quintile rank of the school from which a university applicant matriculated - which is based on poverty levels - is a better way to ensure that young people from poorer communities get a decent shot at higher education.
My view is predicated upon the understanding that education is the best way for young people out of the wasteland of poverty and inequality. It rejects backward assumptions about race groups based on the notion that they are homogenous. This is where we can begin to take up the chisel and hammer to strike a blow against racial stereotyping.
Over time, we will begin to view each other in terms of our characters, rather than as functions of the demographics into which we fall. More and more young people will derive satisfaction from hard work, pride and recognition for their efforts.
Over time, diversity will fully flower when every child starts off on a fair playing field. While affirmative action is an important and necessary intervention, it is belated, difficult and unsustainable in the long term. To help those at the bottom of society, we have to intervene radically and early.
Education is, in fact, the antidote to poverty and inequality. The desired outcome must be to gradually redirect the economy by gradually shifting the balance from spending on social grants, towards investment in lifelong education.
I did not grow up in privileged circumstances, but my parents understood that I could succeed with the right education and opportunities. They then said I had to do the rest. Doing one’s best, I soon found, makes for a happy life.
This leads me directly to the subject of the promotion of diversity within the leadership of the Democratic Alliance.
I would like to make one thing clear. Promoting diversity is not, in anyway, in conflict with promoting merit. Some of our political opponents caricature the DA vision of an ‘Open, Opportunity Society’ as being “myopic”; as window dressing for the preservation of a privileged and, predominantly, white elite. Like every caricature, it is damaging.
I stand before you this evening as the first leader of the official opposition who is also black. But I was not chosen by the DA parliamentary caucus only because I am black. I cannot overemphasis this.
I lead according to the best of my abilities and talents. I ask, like my peers, to be judged, in the words of Martin Luther King Junior, “by the content of my character..."
When the Ghanaian born MP Paul Boateng, was appointed Britain’s first black cabinet minister only as recently as 2000, he too quoted King’s words. He later became High Commissioner to South Africa.
Less than a decade later, President Barack Obama ran for office not only as the first black candidate, but also as the first non-racial candidate in America.
I have chosen these examples to make a simple, yet often overlooked point. Although the issue of race is intimately stitched into our national narrative, we are not alone in striving to overcome the divisions of the past.
Other societies - from those suffering the effects of lingering racism in the American Deep South, to the recent judicial inquest into the racially motivated killing of Stephen Lawrence in London - continue to overcome their legacies of racial strife and discrimination.
There is no such thing as South African ‘exceptionalism’ on the issue of race. Racial discrimination is a blot on the entire copybook of humanity.
It is however our responsibility to lead by example and set the bar high.
It is perfectly appropriate to expect a political party that aspires to govern at a national level to reflect and to look like the country’s disparate constituencies. Merit and excellence are personal qualities, which are ‘colour-blind’ and can be found in every community and walk of life in South Africa. If diversity is a value, merit is a quality. The DA cherishes both.
The DA is not afraid, as no individual or community should be, to face up to our past. While we have always fought racism in the trenches, we acknowledge that we have not always done enough to promote diversity in our leadership ranks. For too long, its make-up was too similar in outlook. This is now fast changing.
As a party, we act consistently. We promote internal diversity in the same way as we do a non-racial education system and economy: by expanding opportunity.
There can be nothing more patronising than the indignity of placing someone in a position only because they tick a race, or for that matter, any other box.
The DA family is growing fast and we do ‘look like’ South Africa in its wonderful diversity. People are given opportunities according to their merit. They either seize them or they do not. We are beginning to see this reflected in the racial composition of our party’s leadership.
The prize is great. Our progress will, to a great extent, determine the success of South Africa. I am optimistic that South Africa will overcome inequality – with its racial roots - by creating a non-racial, opportunity society. South Africa has overcome greater challenges in the past, and the alternative - failure - is unthinkable.
The DA’s vision for our party and our democracy is not an abstract construct – something ‘out there’. It is an expression of our commitment to one another. A party and democracy characterised by non-racialism and diversity.
I thank you.