The Bloemhof incident: Affirmative action on death row

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A water crisis in South Africa's northwestern town of Bloemhof has led to the deaths of three infants and scores of children and adults admitted to hospital for severe diarrhoea. Preliminary results indicate that the area's main reservoir was contaminated with the E. Coli bacteria which causes diarrhoea due to a sewage spillage. The town's mayor has since been fired by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the municipal manager has resigned, and a task team composed of members of the provincial executive committee and the water and sanitation department has been set up to investigate the tragedy.

Anywhere else, and the public's rage over this terrible incident would be directed at the local leadership and management under whose watch this crisis happened. But in South Africa, an isolated event like this has resulted in a leading think tank making a bizarre national call for the country to scrap race-based affirmative action which they blame for the deaths in Bloemhof.

The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) released a statement titled "Affirmative action is killing babies and must be scrapped" where it argues that the inability of the Bloemhof municipality to adequately maintain its sewer plant is due to the incompetence of the people who are managing it. At the heart of their claim made by Frans Cronje, the CEO, is that "there is no doubt that the officials responsible for these deaths were appointed, at least in part, on grounds of race-based affirmative action and that a direct causal link therefore exists between the policy and the deaths".

In short, according to SAIRR, unqualified black people who run this municipality facilitated the deaths of three black children. It follows then, they argue, that the actions of these blacks in Bloemhof are indicative of the overall ineffectiveness of affirmative action in the country as a whole.

Upward mobility 'killing babies'?

These incongruous discursive links made by this institute, that the reason black people are governing in a country where they constitute a 79.2 percent majority is due to employment-equity policies and not because of competence and numbers. This is one of the many examples that reveal the extent to which South African public culture is contaminated with deductive and outright racist logic that assumes that black people are the barriers to their own development. Based on this assumption. we are made to believe that institutionalised inequality can be resolved by placing the "right" blacks in control.

Cronje and company label affirmative action as an exercise in political correctness, a policy that seeks to address four centuries of white, violently facilitated and controlled colonialism and apartheid. This discursive violence that reduces systemic oppression to individual and political party failure has become the daily bread of public discourse in this country, where the majority is blamed for facilitating the conditions of its own dispossession. Nowhere is it mentioned the extent to which, in spite of affirmative action, the South African economy continues to rest firmly in white hands.

The 2011 national census showed that white households earn six times more than the average black African household. It would take up to 50 years to level the income between whites and blacks. Thus far, in this country of 52 million, the black middle class comprises a mere three million. One wonders then, whether this number would have grown on its own from the previous 350,000 without state intervention in the form of affirmative action.

The report argues that this black middle class plays the role of the gatekeeper to "control access to the benefits of the policy [affirmative action] to perpetuate its own advantage". The image that is evoked here is that of a nouveau riche bent on protecting its hold on capital to the detriment of the poor majority. What is missing from this narrative is the fact that many within the black middle class are the main source of financial support within their households and often support more than one household. Thus, greater black mobility will lessen the weight that is shouldered by many among this class whose access to credit is often the lifeline for their extended families.

As I lecturer, I am part of this mobile black South African group. Yet unlike my white and older colleagues whose financial responsibilities do not extend beyond the needs of their children and spouses, I support two siblings and a niece through school, and contribute in other ways to my extended family. These are the realities of growing up in a working class household with only one parent who worked.

These personal, financial and emotional responsibilities of mobile blacks are coupled with professional challenges in white-dominated institutions. There, qualified black candidates continue to be undermined by white colleagues who use the same language employed by the SAIRR to question their competence. A recent controversial article, "South Africa's real ticking time bomb: the black middle class", by a non-profit news outlet, points to the challenges of structural racism and classism which dominate the day-to-day relations between blacks and whites.

'Race matters'

The incident of the "Reitz Four" at the University of the Free State, where five middle-aged black employees were forced by four white male students to eat food that had been urinated on, is but one of the many examples of the extent to which white supremacist attitudes remain unchanged and are being reproduced among the younger generation.

Of course, debates about affirmative action are not exclusive to South Africa. Writing in the US context, Cornel West, in his classic book Race Matters made the point that what is often lost in these debates is that black people, like everyone, "simply want what most people want, to be judged by the quality of their skills, not the color of their skin".

Yet the reaction against equitable redress overlooks the fact that "affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans on that basis".

So instead of asking how a white minority population has managed, spectacularly, to keep control of the economy for 20 years, public discourse recycles damaging stereotypes about black people's "innate incapacity to manage and govern". This call to scrap affirmative action comes amid another national scandal following a cartoon by Dr Jack & Curtis "clowns and poephols" that labels South African President Jacob Zuma's recently appointed cabinet as a bunch of corrupt and incompetent clowns, voted in by an unthinking (black) majority. So yet again, the democratic political choices of the majority are taken as indicative of their approval of patronage politics without a nuanced engagement and the context in which these choices are being made. 

The dearth of serious thinking in the national discourse that makes appropriate and clear links between agents and structure has created a space where it is actually unsurprising that a think tank such SAIRR would think it apt to make such strange discursive and empirically incorrect links between the behaviour of certain individuals and the need for a political response to structural market discrimination. This conceptual recklessness does not only belittle black pain, it is tantamount to showing the middle finger to the poor.  

Siphokazi Magadla is a lecturer with the political and international studies department at Rhodes University, South Africa. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.