Apartheid still shapes us — but is not an excuse

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

‘Our past is a reason to work harder and to take public service seriously — not to keep it alive by doing neither’

THE government should not use apartheid as an excuse, because if it does it becomes far harder for it to tackle its core task: fighting apartheid and its effects. Anyone who believes that apartheid is a non-issue need only reflect on this: if you want to draw attention to yourself in this society, the surest way is to say something about race in general or apartheid in particular.

Arguments whether race still matters provide continuing opportunities for those who fight political battles. Inevitably, the discussion is often distorted.

A good example is the “debate” between Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, who is said to insist that apartheid does not matter anymore, and President Jacob Zuma and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders, who say it does. This has become a predictable excuse for people to pin their colours to the mast and to dust off the usual arguments; it may also be used inside and outside the ANC to fight political battles.

But the argument is an illusion. Manuel didn’t say apartheid does not matter any longer, he said public servants should not use it as an excuse because they were no longer prevented from doing their jobs by the power of the apartheid order. To say this is not to say that apartheid no longer has an effect.

On the contrary, the most important reason why the government should not use apartheid as an excuse is that its effects are still very much with us. Apartheid is still a core reality in this society. To argue that it does not matter anymore is denialism — seeking to ignore the obvious because recognising it is uncomfortable. It is trite to point out all the ways in which our past is still with us.

Racial inequality in incomes, education or health has survived political change. Less obvious are the many ways apartheid shaped attitudes.

As this column has suggested before, many whites still believe that blacks are incompetent and many blacks believe that whites who criticise black leadership are racist. This makes everything we need to do more difficult. Attitudes left over from apartheid explain why the government, business and labour are reluctant to find common solutions to problems.

They also stunt economic growth because racial dynamics in the economy negatively affect everything from developing skills and talents to investment decisions. Racial division is probably a far greater barrier to developing the economy than any of the issues usually cited.

The claim that we should forget about apartheid because race ceased to matter in 1994, ignores all these realities. It is also blind to the experience of other societies. While we like to believe we are different from everyone else, our situation is normal.

Every other society with a history of domination by one group still lives with the consequences, which is why it took the US almost 150 years after the Civil War to elect a black president and why race remains a reality in that society despite the election of that president.

Defeating the demons of the past is a continuing task for any society with a history of domination. And so the key task that faces SA is to move further and further from a past that was not only unjust but a constant barrier to progress in every area of human endeavour. We will be engaged in this work for generations.

The government, business and every other key interest in the society will be judged by how much they have contributed to moving us away from domination, from the stunting of citizens’ abilities to our frequent inability to work together or even to talk to each other.

Which is why Manuel was right to tell public servants that apartheid is not an excuse for not doing their jobs well.

Apartheid may still shape our society, but it does not prevent anyone in the government from doing their jobs. If it did, we would not have an efficient Treasury or Department of Home Affairs. There is nothing in our past preventing public servants from taking the citizens they serve seriously — and it is the failure to do this that most weakens the government’s ability to serve citizens.

Where the government has failed, the effect has been almost invariably to reinforce patterns created by apartheid. The old order’s beneficiaries usually need the government much less than those who were its victims – they also tend to be better able to get the government to listen.

And so the effect of poor government is often to ensure that people who are black and poor get the worst services and have to deal with the same official indifference or contempt they experienced under apartheid. Continued apartheid patterns are not an excuse for poor governance — they are its consequence.

We do need to fight apartheid’s legacy. But we cannot do this unless the government and other key interests take responsibility for the task rather than passing the buck.

Our apartheid past is a reason to work harder and to take public service seriously — not an excuse to keep apartheid alive by doing neither.

By: Steven Friedman

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Source: Business Day