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What is it, one wonders, in circumstances as needlessly and avoidably stressed and demeaning as ours, that motivates politesse at the expense of dealing bluntly with the reality? Elections ought to be exactly when you take the gloves off — especially when the lives we lead warrant an honest exchange.   

These are, after all, circumstances which, even from a humanitarian never mind an economic or political point of view, call for urgent remedy, a setting summarised recently by Business Day political reporter Thando Maeko when she wrote of the “growing frustration over huge unemployment, energy, logistics, low economic growth, crime and corruption, and a rapid rise in the cost of living in SA” (“Slow growth is red flag despite advances since democracy, Ramaphosa says”, May 8). 

Are we so used to hearing these complaints that they seem no more than merely the carping of whingers, people who fail to see, for instance, the gilded truths in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s assessment that SA is in a far better place than it has ever been?

The trouble is, that’s not really saying much. Apartheid SA was not a great place for the vast majority of citizens, who were not even citizens in any meaningful sense of the word. For them, by any measure the transition to constitutional democracy represents an inestimable improvement.

Yet, speaking on Freedom Day towards the end of last month, the president was able to say, without anyone kicking up a fuss: “We must never let our spirits be dampened by detractors, whether they are abroad or in our own country, who want to diminish what we achieved in 1994 and in the years that have followed.” 

One must wonder whose dampened spirits he is thinking of. I’m certain the truly disenchanted among us couldn’t be less interested in the sentiments of “detractors ... abroad or in our own country”; it is their own lived experience, to borrow a phrase, that is unignorably dispiriting, and soils what has been “achieved” since 1994.

But get the “tone” right, and you get away with just about anything. You can, for example, keep punting race-based measures intended to “empower” even though “(some) of the ANC’s most senior leaders have acknowledged that BEE policy helps the few and harms the many”, as my senior colleague, Institute of Race Relations (IRR) policy research head Anthea Jeffery, noted last week in a report detailing a practical, nonracial alternative. 

Jeffery reminds us that in May 2019 public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan said both he and Ramaphosa “were agreed on the ‘urgent’ need for ‘a new model for BEE’ ... that generates ‘more inclusive growth’ and benefits a broader group of black South Africans”. 

She recalls that as far back as 2010, when he was finance minister, Gordhan said: “SA’s BEE policies ... have not worked ... [or] made SA a fairer and more prosperous country. They have led to a small elite group benefiting, and that is not good enough.” In 2012 the National Planning Commission echoed this concern, she pointed out, saying that “empowerment [had] to be about more than changing the colour of a narrow elite”.

In 2017 the SA Communist Party warned that “(enriching) a select BEE few via share deals ... or [worse still] looting public property ... in the name of broad-based black empowerment is resulting in ... increasing poverty for the majority, increasing racial inequality, and persisting mass unemployment.” 

But so long as we think politesse will serve us better we are not going to think about, let alone debate, the need or real potential for meaningful transformation. Or, indeed, even the warnings of senior ANC leaders about the failure of empowerment so far. 

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

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