Picture: 123RF/EVGENYI LASTOCHKIN
Picture: 123RF/EVGENYI LASTOCHKIN

On the very day 90 years ago of that stupendous headline “Great slump in America — 19,000,000 shares change hands in one day” a very different yet, as it turned out, no less far-reaching, anxiety in Vereeniging gained some news attention too.

In a relatively short time the Wall Street crash of the late 1920s wreaked havoc across the US and soon across the world, whereas the parochial disquiet on the fringe of the Witwatersrand took a while longer to achieve impact at scale.

It is difficult to imagine what SA readers on October 25 1929, turning from the staggering banner news of the day, might have made of the lesser item carried under the bald heading: “White women who work for Asiatics — Complaint of a serious position.

It turned out that only that morning the SA Association of Chambers of Commerce passed a motion proposed by Vereeniging MP Maj Karl Rood that “in the interest of the white race, legislation should be passed prohibiting Indian or any other coloured traders from employing European women as shop assistants and that the government should empower municipal authorities to allocate separate dwelling and trading areas to Europeans, Indians and natives”.

Rood was deeply worried about “young European women working side by side with Indian assistants” because, he explained, it would “eventually bring about that familiarity which would lead to the downfall of the Europeans’ social superiority and would have most evil consequences”.

The greater tragedy is that these notions are as lively today as they were in 1929

It’s very likely that had they seen this report the liberals who only a few months earlier had founded the Institute of Race Relations would have felt that their instincts in establishing an organisation to challenge just such thinking were vindicated.

This is a nearly comical footnote all these years later, though it illuminates the gestation of “apartheid” thinking almost two decades before the policy of that name won the National Party enough seats to begin to flesh it out as a programme of government.

There was nothing comical in the gathering cost of the social engineering that went into constructing post-war SA’s destiny, or the fate of the millions who were deprived on the grounds of racial superstition, but the greater tragedy is that these notions are as lively today as they were in 1929.

The Commission for Employment Equity’s latest report is an appalling example of the Orwellian reasoning that gives such far-reaching meaning to the accident of what we look like, but in language that pretends not to. It invokes the government’s wish of the late 1990s — when employment equity law was promulgated — to “abolish discrimination in the workplace” and to embark on “the journey … towards establishing a fair and just workplace”.

This journey would take avowed devotees of the 1955 Freedom Charter in the opposite direction to its goal of making “the preaching and practice of national, race or colour discrimination and contempt … a punishable crime”.

Near the end of his life, former Robben Islander Neville Alexander warned that “fighting race with race is bad social science and even worse practical politics”, and that in trying to overcome “economic and social inequalities” inherited from apartheid it was “a fundamental theoretical and strategic error to try to do so by perpetuating racial identities in the nonsensical belief that this will not have any negative or destructive social consequences”.

As the equity commission’s own report demonstrates, the cost of this nonsensical belief is being paid chiefly by those who count most on relief from the burden of race.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.