HERMAN MASHABA: Race denialism is on the rise in the guise of nonracialism
There is no hypocrisy about BEE and affirmative action in resignation speech after three years as Joburg mayor
In the wake of my resignation as executive mayor of Johannesburg last week, a number of commentators have gone to great pains to point out the apparent hypocrisy in my resignation speech regarding race-based policies.
Specifically, they have sought to contrast a speech I made in 2015 regarding BEE and affirmative action legislation with a single line from my resignation statement: “I cannot reconcile myself with a group of people who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in SA in 2019.”
As a point of departure it is worth noting that I do not believe there is an inherent contradiction in my most recent remarks when compared with my 2015 stance. There is a fundamental difference between asserting that race cannot be deemed irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty, and asserting that I am now in favour of race-based policies including BEE and affirmative action. I made no such claim.
The line in my resignation was motivated by what I have experienced as the rise of race denialism under the banner of nonracialism. This is an important distinction.
Merit and performance
I yearn to live in a nonracial SA in which merit and performance are the only considerations, but this is a goal we are yet to achieve. I say this with the hindsight of three years as the mayor of one of the most unequal cities in the world. Having spent a great deal of time in the poorest areas of the city, such as Protea South and Ivory Park, there can be no doubt that there is a persistent correlation between poverty and race.
In this context, I take issue with those who would have us turn colour blind and stop talking about race altogether. This is not to suggest that poverty and inequality are exclusively “black”. Nor is it to suggest that race should be the sole consideration when we talk about economic exclusion and disadvantage. Neither of these positions capture the nuance of these incredibly complex issues.
However, I believe that we can acknowledge race without being racist. This is by no means a betrayal of my 2015 stance. On the contrary, it echoes it: “Affirmative action serves a few politically connected black elite; it has seen the rise of extensive corruption, but has still left millions of black people, in particular the youths, unemployed and in dire poverty.”
I remain as committed to these positions in 2019 as I was in 2015. If anything, my experience in the city has made me acutely aware of the failure of the ANC’s policies to lift black people out of poverty.
But my experience has also shown me that we cannot afford to be academic about these issues. This is a luxury afforded only to those who have never been faced with the realities of governing. A dogmatic adherence to liberalism, or any ideology for that matter, fails to recognise that policy implementation does not happen in a vacuum. When in government one is forced to consider the SA context and the lived experience of residents.
I do not say this in defence of BEE and affirmative action. I maintain that these policies are misguided and have done nothing to address the underlying causes of economic exclusion, including a failing education system, severe skills shortages, restrictive labour legislation and general policy uncertainty.
Instead, I am advocating for necessary redress that will overcome the ills of the past, including inequality, unemployment and poverty that manifests largely along racial lines.
Redress, for me, means ensuring all South Africans are able to exploit their God-given talents in an environment where our success in life is determined by our own efforts and not by the circumstances of our birth. To paraphrase my 2015 position, I believe the only way in which we can accomplish this is by growing the economy, increasing investor confidence and repealing legislation that undermine these objectives.
The past three years have exposed me to the realities of state capture, corruption and the plundering of state resources by the ANC.
A capable state is vital to this. The past three years have exposed me to the realities of state capture, corruption and the plundering of state resources by the ANC. I have witnessed first-hand how communities — predominantly poor and black — have been deprived of the dignity of basic services while a small elite benefited through patronage. I experienced the effect of cadre deployment, which has decimated the public service. The ANC, and the state, have failed us.
It is for this reason that I have continued my capitalist crusade in the City of Johannesburg by advocating for public-private partnerships as a means to provide true redress. Inasmuch as we need a capable state, we cannot solve our universal challenges without the private sector.
This is not a platitude; it is one of my core beliefs. Indeed, the Johannesburg inner-city revitalisation plan I championed is a prime example of how the state can work with the private sector in a win-win relationship. By making city-owned properties available to the private sector for mixed-use development, we have unlocked a R32bn investment boom that will turn the city into a construction site, create thousands of jobs and accelerate the provision of affordable housing.
This project illustrates how the government can achieve broad-based empowerment. Through the inclusion of empowerment targets in the scoring matrix used to evaluate proposals — such as rand value of spend on local small, medium and microenterprises that have black ownership, as well as training and development targets for youth — we have ensured that the benefits of the project are not only enjoyed by large developers.
There is a fine line between acknowledging the continued correlation between race and economic exclusion and resorting to racial nationalism. The former is important for SA society as the failure to tackle this issue head-on prevents us from delivering on the promise of a unified society; the latter should be avoided because it drives division.
While my views on policies such as BEE and affirmative action have not changed, my time as mayor has made me deeply aware of the continued legacy of apartheid. I am unapologetic in rejecting those who would turn a blind eye to this. Does this make me a hypocrite? I believe not.
• Mashaba is executive mayor of Johannesburg.
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