/High tea with Thuli Madonsela discussing white privilege and black disadvantage

High tea with Thuli Madonsela discussing white privilege and black disadvantage

2019-06-02 07:05

It is undesirable to generalise about entire categories of people when it comes to privilege. There is a scale of relative privilege and deprivation in South Africa, and in our case, the discrepancies are extreme, writes Helen Zille.

The highlight of last week was a traditional high tea, that turned into a three-hour in-depth discussion with Thuli Madonsela, former Public Protector and now professor of social justice in the Law Faculty at the University of Stellenbosch.

Our meeting was the culmination of a Twitter debate about whether the concept of “white privilege” is still the primary lens through which to understand “black disadvantage” in South Africa (and whether the concept of “black privilege” exists at all).

In three hours, we only skimmed the surface of the debate that focuses on the concepts of “whiteness” and “white privilege” in society. These are crucial ideas within the framework of “identity politics” that now dominate the social sciences at our universities, and seem to be accepted as “self-evident” by many (probably most) social media users.

When we ended our discussion, we still had one core disagreement:

Professor Madonsela believes that all whites are beneficiaries of “white privilege” (from a hobo to the offspring of a billionaire). I disagree. However, we did concur that not all black South Africans are equally disadvantaged. That provides a good starting point for our next meeting.

At the end of our discussion, we each agreed to write two articles. The first would summarise our respective contributions to last week’s conversation. The second would reflect on what we learnt from each other. We would then meet again to take the discussion to the next level.

I had to do some serious preparation for our meeting, because in our preceding Twitter engagement, Prof Madonsela set me a mathematical challenge.

“Looking forward to our tea tomorrow dear @helenzille,” she tweeted. “I hope we’ll at least agree on mathematical principles such as exponentiality, compound debt and interest, which will explain why equal opportunity is an illusion without reparation of compound disadvantage.”

I replied that my husband (who has two degrees in mathematics) would have to explain these concepts to me properly. She replied: “Hope he joins our team to conduct some analytics on, or create an algorithm to calculate the impact of the various past laws on two families one privileged by them and one disadvantaged over 344 years to help us make sense of the cumulative mess we find ourselves in.”

After doing my homework, I agreed that “the algorithm” was a good starting point.

An algorithm is a set of rules to interpret data and solve defined problems.

So the starting point must be: what problem are we trying to solve?

I defined the key problem as the poverty and exclusion of the majority of South Africans (a very large majority of whom are black).

The next question to ask, in developing an algorithm, is what data is relevant to measure. What factors contribute to exclusion? Once you have established this, you can best determine which interventions will be most effective in reversing this debilitating legacy.

In defining the problem, it is undoubtedly true that the racist legacy of colonialism and apartheid continue to have a devastating impact to this day. Land dispossession, the exclusion of black people from the industrial economy through the “colour bar”, inferior education, the pass laws (that decimated family life), forced removals (that decimated communities) – the list goes on and on.

It is also true today that not all black South Africans remain equally disadvantaged. Looking at “racial categories” of people (as we still do in South Africa) it is interesting to note that during the last 25 years, Indian South Africans, in most provinces, have moved up the scale significantly, and are now, on average, either on par with whites, or slightly ahead. The reasons for this would be an interesting phenomenon to study on its own.

Among black Africans, the disparity between extreme privilege and profound disadvantage is now as wide as it is in society as a whole (and continues to widen).

It is therefore important to accept that it is undesirable (in principle and fact) to generalise about entire categories of people. There is a scale of relative privilege and deprivation in South Africa, as in every other country, although in our case, the discrepancies are extreme.

Race remains a significant factor in determining a person’s position on that scale, but it is not the only one, nor is it a simple one that can be used as a broad generalisation to define the relative “advantage” or “disadvantage” of entire racial categories of people.

The great risks of getting stuck in the race debate are:

1) It apportions blame to biological attributes that people cannot change;

2) This deflects attention from the factors that we can actually do something about, (although some of these interventions have proved very difficult);

3) It ignores the fact that inequality (and discrepancies in “privilege”) are wider and deeper now than they were in 1994. Today, there are more than 9 million unemployed South Africans. In 1994 there were 3.6 million;

4) It fails to focus on the problem of policies that entrench disadvantage for the majority, while promoting extreme privilege for the politically connected few;

5) It is extremely dangerous, because the more the majority of black people remain trapped in poverty, the more the government will ignore the real reasons, and continue looting the state, while hiding behind concepts such as “white privilege” to scapegoat a small and shrinking minority;

6) The more minorities feel isolated and marginalised, even rhetorically, the more the skilled amongst them will leave the country, although most of them desperately want to be part of building the South African “success story”. This will strip us of critical skills we require for development.

Developing an ethos of ‘self-help’

Experiences of successful transitions from mass poverty around the world show that it is possible to achieve this in a single generation, if we work hard enough at the right things, and everyone takes responsibility.

I am cautious about enumerating the lessons I have learnt from these countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and especially Vietnam, because there is a very strong resistance in our society to learning these lessons.

It is ironic that, despite the widespread rhetorical rejection of all things “western” (lumped together under the label of “colonialism”), there is an unquestioning acceptance of the “critical race theory” analysis emerging from American campuses, which blames black poverty on “whiteness” and “white privilege”.

I have concluded that this analysis offers a comfort zone that absolves people from taking responsibility for addressing the enormous challenges of the task ahead. It is far easier to lay all the blame on a shrinking minority.

Fortunately, we do not have to look to America or Asia for potential solutions.

Here at home, the story of how Afrikaners moved from mass poverty in the first four decades of the last century, to the relative prosperity they enjoy today, is very instructive. Again, we have to look beyond the obvious narrative of “oppression and exploitation” to establish how and why this happened.

Although accurate statistics are very difficult to obtain, and open to debate, by the early 1930s the majority of Afrikaners were classified as poor, with the bottom 20% so desperately poor, that they could not afford to wear a basic apparel, such as a shirt.

According to the late Jan Sadie, former Professor of Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, the main reasons for mass poverty were the impact of the Anglo-Boer War and a lack of adequate education. It is staggering to recall that the war wiped out about one tenth of the Afrikaans population in the Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. At the same time, 75% of the livestock in the then Transvaal and 60% in the Free State perished. Afrikaners lost their basic source of wealth.

The fact that the Afrikaners were able to get on to their feet was in large measure due to the provision of quality education at scale, by dedicated teachers. From the 1930s the philosophy “self-help”, backed by rigorous Calvinist discipline, an ethos of personal responsibility cultivated in families (usually with a dominant father figure), became the driving force in the Afrikaner community.

The middle class, in particular, expended enormous effort on uplifting poor Afrikaners. Powerful and influential organisations, such as the Afrikaner Christelike Vroue Vereeniging, started at the time, continue to this day, and have now spread their focus beyond the confines of the Afrikaans speaking community.

According to Sadie, the way in which the emerging Afrikaner middle class worked to uplift “their own poor” was virtually unique in the world. So was the importance attached to quality education provided by state schools.

By the 1950s, this ethos was still in its prime, and I (as the daughter of refugees) certainly benefitted. We had two grades in each class in our rudimentary school, where few children came from homes wealthy enough to afford shoes. But by the time I went to a private high school, my foundational education was well advanced compared to my middle class peers.

Another crucial factor is that the Afrikaner population growth rate quickly stabilised with urbanisation. It remained at 2-3% between 1910 and 1980 and then dropped below replacement rate.

One of the crucial distinctions between the poverty of Afrikaners in the 1920s and 1930s, and black South Africans today, is the numbers of people involved. And that makes the challenge today much greater. But it does not change the core lessons.

The ethos of “self-help” amongst Afrikaners remained strong throughout this period and saw the emergence of effective institutions, both in the state and the private sector that drove development and economic growth. Poor Afrikaners got jobs in major infrastructure projects, such as the South African Railways and the mines.

It is interesting to note that, although Afrikaners increasingly came to dominate the state, and National Party control can fairly be described as “state capture”, this did not result in the emergence of a state-dependent elite at the cost of economic growth and development of the Afrikaner community as a whole. The tragedy (and legacy we must reverse) is that black South Africans were systematically excluded.

Blaming whites a convenient escape

Today, a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie”, virtually uni-racial and state-dependent, is having the same effect as apartheid in excluding the majority from participating in the fruits of development.

Having failed to establish an effective state, this elite finds a convenient escape hatch in “critical race theory” which blames whites, instead of reflecting on its own failures. It is, for example, easier to destroy the relative handful of good public schools, and target Afrikaans-speaking schools, than improve the vast majority of dysfunctional ones.

There was undoubtedly corruption under the National Party, but it was incomparable to the scale of looting to which we have become accustomed to under the ANC, with profoundly negative consequences for the poor. This too, has to be factored into the algorithm in order to calculate “cumulative disadvantage”.

That broadly summarised my argument.

So why did this discussion take three hours? Prof Madonsela obviously had her own set of points, summarised in an academic paper specifically prepared for our meeting.

Discussing how we had both managed to emerge from relative childhood poverty, we found that on many key issues that must be factored into the algorithm, we ticked the same boxes: strong families, responsible and hard-working entrepreneurial fathers, an intense focus on education.

We are both women. Being much younger than me, and better educated, Prof Madonsela has perhaps been able to reap greater benefits from the receding impact of gender inequality in our society. And certainly of the intense focus on racial transformation.

Prof Madonsela offered her own analysis and her own set of interventions to address poverty and inequality, along the lines of the Marshall Plan, (that she calls the Musa Plan) to provide “reparation for the compound disadvantage of the past”. I will leave her to spell this out which she will do in a syndicated column in City Press and Rapport this weekend.

I will certainly study the details of her plan. But at this stage of our conversation, I remain convinced that the sooner we can learn the lessons drawn from the successful attempts by a group of South Africans to beat poverty, and apply these lessons more broadly, the sooner we can move towards a common society where people are judged on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

– Helen Zille is the former DA leader and premier of the Western Cape.

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