Let’s face facts. It’s not about merit. It’s still about racial ...

Ideas

Let’s face facts. It’s not about merit. It’s still about racial privilege

No matter how good you are as a black person, competence will be assumed to be white

Columnist
Makhaya Ntini, centre, wears an armband in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement ahead of the 3TC Solidarity Cup cricket match at the SuperSport Park in Centurion on Saturday.
making a stand Makhaya Ntini, centre, wears an armband in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement ahead of the 3TC Solidarity Cup cricket match at the SuperSport Park in Centurion on Saturday.
Image: Christiaan Kotze/AFP

Unless you have a heart of stone, you too would have been deeply moved by Makhaya Ntini’s story of how he used to run between the hotel and the cricket stadium to avoid the racial humiliation and isolation of sitting alone on the team bus. Until now, everyone thought this routine was simply part of his fitness regime. Ntini’s revelation followed fellow cricketer Lungi Ngidi’s public support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which drew stinging attacks from at least three white players, Pat Symcox, Boeta Dippenaar and Rudi Steyn, while forcing other white players out of hiding to take the knee, so to speak, on the side of justice.

There is a more complex tale behind this all-too-superficial media story about a bunch of cricket stars. It is about the experiences of black, first-time entrants (FTEs) into the white worlds of sports, schools, clubs, companies and universities. Most of us suffer in silence. I should know. As the first black dean of education at the University of Pretoria (and only the second in history after Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo in economics and management sciences) and the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, I could write  a book about first-time experiences in a white world.

The law after apartheid forced white institutions to open; none of them did it willingly. Black FTEs are viewed with suspicion regardless of how good you are, whether as a sportsperson, teacher or academic. You have to confront the brutal fact that racial privilege sold white South Africans two stubborn lies — that any white appointment is based on merit and that the new black appointment is based on quotas. It would be inconceivable to Symcox and company that if it were not for the racial laws that protected them as white minorities, there might have been hundreds of Basil de Oliveiras who would have displaced most of them on grounds of merit.

Often, that silent suffering of the FTEs takes a terrible toll on already vulnerable individuals. Two of our most prominent FTEs tragically died on the job — first-time black dean of health sciences at the University of Cape Town Bongani Mayosi and first-time black vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University Russel Botman. Both these men faced enormous institutional pressures on the job, in part because they were black. That alone comes with heavy and often unreasonable expectations from all sides of the racial divide.

I could write  a book about first-time experiences in a white world.

I received some blowback for my public position on the disgraceful conduct of the governing body of Pretoria Boys’ High School for appointing yet another white man to head up this prestigious public institution. How is it possible, I mused, that the school could not hire a single black principal in more than 110 years? What message does this send to the diverse body of pupil enrolments? Is leadership competence in an African country restricted to white men in gowns? White men who wrote to me were perplexed. “But it is a good school. Your son went there. The new principal is a good guy.”

To understand the behaviour of Pretoria Boys’ High is to gain insight into the spiteful behaviours of Symcox and his ilk. It is not about merit; it never was. It is about racial privilege and its unspoken and unexamined assumption that competence is white, whether in leading a public school or playing international cricket. And that is why first-time entrants suffer the spite of resident whiteness when the breakthrough eventually comes — often because of the political pressure to change, rather than because of the generosity of inclusion.

The FTEs suffer because they are not supposed to be there. They upend the calm and cozy arrangements that racial privilege affords. They introduce social awkwardness into the environment. They take the place of someone else. They do not deserve to be there. They simply do not belong.

I am glad Ngidi and Ntini spoke out, because these routine slights, humiliations and hurts have been bottled up over the years. The same thing happened when black pupils and alumni of elite schools took to social media with a long list of ritualised discriminations in former white institutions. It just came tumbling out.

What this George Floyd moment in world history has afforded us is an opportunity to have this difficult conversation about race and inclusion. What the global pandemic has reminded us of is that the virus is raceless and that our lives depend on what we do and how others around us behave. We are in this life and death struggle together. One way out is to listen and absorb the messages from cricketers and schoolchildren to learn and, as a consequence, live more generous lives.