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This is why it was so wrong to call Maimane an ‘experiment’


This is why it was so wrong to call Maimane an ‘experiment’

It is an insult based on debunked prejudices that undermines the achievements of everyone across the SA spectrum


In a book on The Firsts, we research the lives of those South Africans who became the first black principals of all-white schools. It is a mix of joy and pain hearing these men and women recount their stories of coming into former white institutions. Joy, because they were breaking down the walls of racial prejudice that had defended separate schooling for children who, for more than a century, were taught by white teachers and led by white principals. The new appointees carried with them a sense of history as pioneers of a new non-racial order in a democratic country.

But there was also so much pain to bear. The assumption of incompetence; that the appointment represented unearned privilege; that racial accommodation had to be made for the sake of the blacks; and that a black principal had displaced someone more qualified for the position. Such is the nature of blind prejudice that none of these claims or assumptions need to be true, for they serve a different function — to reassure those who had lost the security of racially protected labour with the end of apartheid. Put differently, to accept the possibility that the black principal is the better candidate is to collapse one of the most cherished myths of white racism — that the white person is, by definition, the superior appointment.

This is what my friend Tony Leon simply cannot grasp — that his comment on Mmusi Maimane as “an experiment” in his appointment as the first black head of the opposition DA fits snugly within this narrative that his appointment could not have been meritorious. It was a costly slip that unsettled many of us who were “the firsts” as university vice-chancellors, chairpersons of boards, leaders of NGOs and principals of schools, positions that, until recently, were held exclusively by white men and women. The word “experiment” means taking a chance, enduring a risk or making an exception rather than a worthy appointment, end of story. It is, to be blunt, a terrible insult...

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