History shows ANC’s race-based agenda has failed
There is a way to address schooling, housing, healthcare, skills and jobs without resorting to skin-deep change
Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan was quite right last week in warning against the perils of ignoring history, but does he really mean what he says?
The context of his remark – responding to my colleague and head of policy research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) Anthea Jeffery’s warning that basing empowerment on race is failing and should be ditched – was what he called the “agenda” for overcoming the continuing exclusion of the black majority from meaningful participation in the economy.
“Those who ignore that agenda are ignoring history,” he said.
If this seems obvious, it’s because it’s true, except for that freighted term, “agenda”.
While seeming refreshingly reasonable – suggesting that “new ideas need to come to the fore”, that “new and dynamic ways have to be found to upskill young people” and that solutions are possible “if we work in a constructive way” – the minister signalled the ideological limit of such solution-seeking by observing of Jeffery’s argument for non-racial empowerment that “well, Dr Jeffery and I and others in the ANC come from very different schools”.
And, perhaps, depending on your “school”, your idea of history is different, too.
History for the IRR laps at our heels, but for too many it’s confined to the dark years up to 1994. Surely, though, the subsequent 25 years must also be factored into the continuum, especially as the long economic exclusion of the black majority has been allowed to continue, despite the “agenda”, which ample evidence shows has done far too little to match what most South Africans desperately need and want.
If race delineates the divide between access and exclusion, race itself is not the problem. Dealing only with the symptoms – demographic correctives that give the appearance of equity – pretends that the underlying disadvantages are not real and need little attention. Thus, they continue to be overlooked, at the greatest cost, ironically, to the black majority.
Unemployment and education data reveal the unignorable failure of an empowerment mission whose emphasis on race has allowed disadvantage itself to grow.
While joblessness has risen for all races, black South Africans suffer from the highest levels. In 2017, the proportion of unemployed black people was 31%, having risen from 27% a decade earlier, while only 6% of white people were unemployed in 2017 (4% in 2007).
Education makes all the difference. The highest numbers of people living in poverty (58%-69%) have only primary or some secondary schooling. The number falls to 36% for those with matric, and 8.4% for those with higher-than-matric qualifications. Viewed differently, in the country’s increasingly high-skills economy, the labour market absorption rate for people with a tertiary education is 75.6%, falling to 50.3% for those with matric, and just 34%, on average, for those with less than matric.
Yet, just under half of children who enroll in Grade 1 will make it to Grade 12; about 28% of people aged 20 or older have completed high school; fewer than one out of 100 matric candidates in the poorest quintile of schools will receive a distinction in maths; and the black higher education participation rate is just 15.6% while that for Indian and white people (aged 20–24) is 49.3% and 52.8%.
Race-based empowerment is not helping the victims of joblessness and chronically deficient schooling.
By contrast, the alternative (Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged, or EED) model crafted by Jeffery directly addresses measures to improve schooling, housing, healthcare, skills and job growth, giving individuals more options to make better choices, and employers incentives to contribute to these and other objectives, and all without resorting to race. EED scorecards would reward substantive, not skin-deep, change.
Such empowerment would benefit everyone, but, because the need for such interventions is greatest among black people – held back not by race but unattended disadvantage – they will be the primary beneficiaries.
If this thinking arises from a different “school” from the ANC’s, perhaps that recommends it. It certainly demonstrates closer attention to history.
New and dynamic ways – to borrow Gordhan’s encouraging phrase – are available to lift SA on to the path of stability and prosperity, but the opportunity to try them will elude us if they are only ever judged against what has proved to be a stubborn ideological benchmark of continuing failure.
The history speaks for itself. So does the “agenda”.
• Morris is head of media at the IRR.