Jobless guys looking for piece jobs in Meredale, Johannesburg. Picture: Katherine Muick
Jobless guys looking for piece jobs in Meredale, Johannesburg. Picture: Katherine Muick

The most challenging topics — race, and South Africans’ anxiety about the future, among them — were, unremarkably enough, vigorously and civilly debated at a packed Institute of Race Relations (IRR) event in Stellenbosch this week which correspondent Charl Linde ("Axe Bullard Event" March 12) feared would be so dangerous he appealed to Stellenbosch University to ban it in advance.

Linde was vexed that the presence of columnist David Bullard on the platform meant the university would be “playing host to a convention of white afro-pessimism on a grand scale”, which would “give credence to white-fear tropes of a dystopian SA future”.

What Bullard said, to applause, was that he was “largely optimistic” about the country and its “fabulous human capital” … but only “if we get it right”. SA, he warned, “will never thrive while the mass of people are living in poverty”.

This points to Linde’s embarrassing assumption that black South Africans have no anxieties about their and their children’s future, no agency in doing anything about it, and no part in the debate about what might be done. Such anxiety is no “own affair”, as the historical policy that once expressed such thinking had it, which the IRR rejects today as it always did.

Linde is surely not unaware that for millions of black South Africans, the spectre of dystopia is not an abstraction but a daily reality. Against the IRR’s own Quality of Life Index, white South Africans, in contrast, enjoy the highest living standards in the country.

This is not the finding of an organisation impelled by whites-only conservatism, but an example of the analysis that drives the IRR’s argument against chronic ANC policy errors, and in favour of better options the beneficiaries of which will mainly be SA’s black majority, the “mass of people” in Bullard’s phrase.

How ironic that, rather than stimulate debate on these and other factors shaping the future all South Africans must share, Linde hoped Stellenbosch University would draw back to his own conservative bunker and shut down the conversation instead.

Free speech, as the Stellenbosch debate proved, is the boldest gesture of  SA optimism. Linde’s impulse to curb freedom is the first condition of pessimism.

Michael Morris
Institute of Race Relations