We need a conversation by and for black people. It is time to talk openly about racial reasoning, the bedrock of our own debilitating “what-aboutism”, writes Songezo Zibi.
An almost untold aspect of some of the testimony before the commission of inquiry into state capture, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo (“the Zondo Commission”) is the long list of victims and their stories of torment at the hands of the corrupt. These are strong, ethically upstanding and committed servants of the South African public who were harassed, victimised, threatened and ejected out of state and public institutions, and some of whom underwent immense personal strain over a very long time.
For instance, there was Mathane Makgatho, the former group treasurer at Transnet who was bold enough to tell Brian Molefe, the former group chief executive, that he was enabling the looting of hundreds of millions of rands of public money. Over a long time, this skilled, highly experienced and competent black woman (yes, her race is central to this piece, but more on that later) fought a good fight and eventually left the organisation, fearing for her life.
She has been generally unknown to the public until now, but likely will continue to be invisible and deliberately unnoticed. There is no discussion about how she is doing, how she and some of her colleagues who had to leave that organisation for the same reason are coping.
There is also Dr Masimba Dahwa who was chief procurement officer at South African Airways (SAA) for some of the ruinous time Dudu Myeni was chairperson. Upon refusing to obey patently unlawful instructions that included awarding contracts to companies chosen by Myeni without following procedures, he was victimised, harassed and hounded out that organisation. He was also fearing for his life.
Last month he told Judge Zondo that two days before his testimony the bank that financed his home had launched High Court proceedings to repossess and sell it because his unemployment meant he could no longer service his home loan. He and his wife are also no longer able to send their children to a school of their choice.
Following his testimony, he has slipped back into obscurity, a public non-existence where he will continue to fight the consequences of his principled stand alone.
Their stories matter. Their stories matter particularly to black people because it has become commonplace in black professional circles to hear about an alleged, systematic purging of senior black professionals from key positions in state-owned companies. This narrative is being pushed aggressively by those who, throughout the Zuma years, persecuted countless black people who took principled positions against looting.
Our collective indifference to their plight, the nationally significant issues at play, and the fact that it continues, all warrant a moment of reflection for us as black people.
At the same time these abuses were taking place on our watch, there was another corps of people, many of them black, who were appointed to replace the departing victims. In the same way we were indifferent to the plight of those who were being ejected, we were equally uninterested in whether or not the new occupiers of executive roles were suitably qualified and ethically upstanding.
In stark contrast to Makgatho is someone like Phumeza Nhantsi who was appointed chief financial officer of SAA. It has become patently clear in Nhantsi’s testimony that in the role she was a person of negotiable ethical principles and was woefully out of her depth. Anyone who would have questioned her suitability for the role at the time is likely to have endured a torrent of abuse for questioning the competence of a black woman, which we must apparently accept without examination.
So, you have two black women of significant academic achievement. One is highly experienced, unwavering from her ethical centre and is supremely qualified – and could easily have been the CFO of SAA or any large company, private or public. The other should have never been appointed to the role on account of her lack of experience, to begin with, let alone her questionable ethics. The more qualified person was put to pasture while the other, less qualified was rewarded.
A perversion of principles
We have to ask what sort of environment breeds a situation where this perversion is normal. When did we, as black people, lose the ability to identify clear principles and stand by them especially when our own violate those principles? Is it the collective trauma of white racism that drives us to a mentality where irrational closing of ranks is a natural instinct even though we end up protecting and helping those who seek to destroy?
Typically, some will ask what about private sector harassment of black professionals? What about white corruption? Well, it is precisely that sort of thing that has got us where we are, the what-about-ism. It is a well-tried argument that is no different to crying “all lives matter” when told “black lives matter”. It is a cowardly, self-serving cop-out designed to engineer a moral deadlock where no wrong is to be corrected because there is another competing wrong that deserves to be dealt with first.
So, for now, we need a conversation by and for black people. It is time to talk openly about racial reasoning, the bedrock of our own debilitating “what-aboutism”.
Writing in 1993 about the cynical nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court in order to replace Judge Thurgood Marshall, Dr Cornell West referred to a “failure of nerve of black leadership”. This was because no black leaders or commentators had the courage to challenge Judge Thomas’s nomination on account of his poor competence for the role.
Judges Marshall and Thomas are both black. The former had been an esteemed lawyer in the civil rights movement while the latter was the ultimate antithesis, apart from his track record of incompetence which was available for inspection at the time.
“The very fact that no black leader could utter publicly that a black appointee for the Supreme Court was unqualified shows how captive they are to white racist stereotypes about black intellectual talent. The point here is not simply that if Thomas were white, they would have no trouble shouting this fact from the rooftops. The point is also that their silence reveals that black leaders may entertain the possibility that the racist stereotype may be true”, writes West in his book, Race Matters.
He continues: “Of course, some privately admit his mediocrity while pointing pointing out the mediocrity of Justice Souter and other members of the Court – as if white mediocrity were a justification of black mediocrity. No double standards here, the argument goes, if a black man is unqualified one can defend and excuse him by appealing to other unqualified white judges. This chimes well with a cynical tokenism of the lowest common denominator – with little concern for the goal of shattering the racist stereotype or for furthering the public interest of the nation. It also renders invisible highly qualified black judges who deserve serious consideration for selection to the Court.”
And this is the point. We have rendered invisible countless, competent black professionals who were butchered during the Zuma years, and yet we now wonder why they are not in senior leadership positions.
Playing into the stereotype
The fundamental question to ask is how black people can regain a positive sense of self that does not rely on the worst examples of whiteness to determine which position they are going to take in relation to black people who wilfully fulfil the worst racist stereotypes about us.
These stereotypes say we are incapable of governing effectively. When we get the opportunity to govern, we steal public finances and collapse our economies, which is largely what happened over the last ten years.
The question is why so many black people found it impossible to notice, and viciously attacked anyone, black or not, who dared point out the damage that was being done to the country under the false pretext of “transformation”, and later “radical economic transformation”. Many people were said to be “obsessed with Zuma” or pandering to white interests by people who, today are seemingly surprised at the grave position the country finds itself in.
The all-winning card to play was to make angry remarks about white domination of the economy as cover for the looting, which invariably involved collusion with corrupt white people or foreigners. Once this card was played, the often-abused card of “black excellence” was also brought out in defence of people who, it has now come to pass, never had the interests of black people in their hearts to begin with. Instead they often tormented those black people who actually deserved to be hailed as examples of black excellence.
We saw a version of slow-motion self-harm that continues to this day as the same charlatans who either stole or aided in the stealing of billions from the public purse now go around telling journalists they are the victims of racist conspiracies.
This shameful spectacle extends to instances where black professional associations and newspapers are lobbied to fight for their reinstatement while nothing, absolutely nothing is said about and for the Dahwas and Makgathos of this land who are worth defending and caring for. It extends to politicians who have always fed their crass materialism through the spoils of political patronage from the same corrupt elites who now cry wolf, and now position themselves as the champions of administrative fairness and justice. And many black people continue to fall for this scam.
How did we get to this dark, self-destructive space? How did so many of us black people become captive to cheap tricks that rely on evoking the emotional trauma of racism in order to cause us to submit to people who are, essentially anti-black?
The most central reason for this degenerative state is our history of racial oppression itself, of which the purpose was to destroy any sense of black communal and cultural cohesion. Today, so-called black radicalism sometimes amounts to a foul-mouthed argument for mediocre, corrupt black people to fill the roles of and behave like corrupt, mediocre apartheid apparatchiks. Through our silence or tacit support of these corrupt elites we perpetuate rather than stop the destruction of black people’s social and ethical fabric, relegating it to mimicking the worst vices of our racist oppressors.
At the same time competent black people are left to rot on the vine because they do not have access to the patronage system that places the incompetents above them, or they refuse to bow and scrape to low-esteemed politicians who prefer to be treated like 17th century monarchs and overlords.
What we teach young people
In this way we teach legions of young people, some of whose sole lived experience is a political system that hails and elevates the corrupt and incompetent, that black leadership is inherently corrupt and unable to govern effectively. They see and experience this not because they are told, but because we have chosen to place in leadership those who will, through their actions, give credence to this racist stereotype.
We need to recognise that these looters of public money and tormentors of competent black professionals are anti-black, and black people must reject them. Their actions have had a damaging impact on the socioeconomic conditions of poor black people and the country as a whole, something for which they demonstrate no remorse whatsoever.
Secondly, we need to accept that our political culture is degenerate and has no chance of imparting new political morals and ethics that can be assimilated by the rest of society. Its elites are unburdened by either honesty, ethics or competence; and lack the basic capacities required to play a transformative role in a divided society creaking under the yoke of socioeconomic difficulties.
We cannot and must not be so naïve as to pin our hopes on these people. They have neither the intention nor the ability to change their behaviour and make themselves truly accountable in the face of their rampant hypocrisy.
Until there is a new political school of thought, one that seeks to transform society as a whole, to build social structures that deepen accountability instead of eroding it, our situation will not improve. We shall continue to degenerate, risking violent social upheaval in the future that will, ironically, probably be led by the same greedy elites who cultivated and drove our devastation to begin with.
Some will, of course, question why this piece is directed at black people. My answer will always be: Race matters for black people, for it is black people whose oppression is used as cover to legitimise evil against everything millions of ethical black people should and do stand for.
– Songezo Zibi is former editor of Business Day
and author of Raising the Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa.
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