“The notion of empowering previously disadvantaged blacks is a noble ideal, noble but racist,” declared Herman Mashaba, the Democratic Alliance’s mayoral candidate for the City of Johannesburg. His captive audience was the conservative union Solidarity.
His reasoning is that,“businesses are compelled to consider the race and social background of potential applicants instead of considering an applicant’s skillset and qualifications,” and therefore, “Affirmative action is not empowering, it is limiting, degrading, and offensive to anyone who wants to participate in the economy but cannot simply because they are not black.”
In this column I take Mashaba and the Democratic Alliance through the typical black experience of corporate South Africa.
My family is rural and dirt poor. We grew up in an enclave of apartheid victim-hood, shut out of the economy and deprived of centuries of economic, cultural and social progress.
My father was one of the scores of miners retrenched during the mining decline in the 1990s, which, mind you, was caused by illicit outflows of capital and mineral assets. I remember him only as a defeated and grumpy middle-aged man. My mother was a domestic worker. She would often remark that, “In a white man’s household, even the dogs are above me.”
My village had only a few schools miles apart. I attended Kwa-Nkukhu Junior Primary School (I assume the school was named after someone called “Chicken”), Kwa-Phuza Senior Primary School and Bonguzwane High School.
The three schools consisted of crowded classrooms on dusty grounds. There were no libraries, sports fields or computer laboratories. Most of us (learners) trekked tens of kilometers in to get to school—without shoes, electricity or running water. As a high school senior I studied under candlelight, with old re-used textbooks often sawn together with cotton or mended with superglue.
Notwithstanding all of these challenges, I dogged on and matriculated with a distinction. I don’t reckon many others were as lucky.
Despite cracking the whip on me to work hard (literally), my parents had never really thought beyond what would happen if I passed matric. They hoped that the government would figure something.
Something did pan out. I was accepted into the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Westville Campus) to study accounting. Financial Aid (NSFSAS) had its limits, so I made do with bread, pap, livers and eggs. I couldn’t afford textbooks, so I colonized the library, leaving only intermittently to attend classes. This was the only way to monopolize “reserve” textbooks, which are on short loans of two hours per turn.
The library was also necessary for me to fill the gaps in my semi-Bantu Education. I barely understood my lecturers’ twangy Durbanspeak and they didn’t bother with my thick rural accent.
Despite these challenges, I graduated in the top 15 percentile (cum laude) and earned myself a scholarship to a top-tier European university. With my finances slightly better, I topped my masters class. On my return, I took up articles with one of the big four accounting firms.
According to the Democratic Alliance, this is where my story ends. The free market should kick in to propel me to the upper middle class. This is Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba’s re-imagination of Mandela and Tutu’s Rainbow Nation. Except, my story takes a different, cloudier twist.
Despite having proved myself inside and outside the classroom, my experience as an articled clerk has been less than dandy. A few days into the induction program, most of my white colleagues (without my grades or postgraduate qualifications) were snatched up by keen team managers. I sat there like a smelly bag of cabbages, constantly shoved around to complete menial tasks.
Soon, my fellow inductees were involved in complex transactions, meeting with clients and drafting memoranda. They were on a first name basis with big-shot corporate clients. As for me, I split my time between Facebook, news outlets and YouTube.
On a productive day, I am half-invited to “just have a look” at a due diligence or audit, or to “familiarize myself” with a draft audit report. On a really productive day I collate annexes for a report prepared by someone else. And oh boy, collating is the real responsibility! Whoever gives me the instruction makes sure to repeat it twice and thrice. Just in case I bungle the crucial task.
I sit at my cubicle, my mind raging with boredom, while I watch my white colleagues marvel in incompetence. There is nothing I can do about it. I chuckle to myself as I listen to people bang on about “merit”, white corporate South Africa’s favourite unicorn.
Mashaba’s mayoral candidacy is anchored by his disdain for race-based equity. He declared his intention to scrape all forms of redistribution of wealth, favouring instead economic growth and meritocracy.
His argument, if I understand it correctly, is that affirmative action — Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and Employment Equity (EE) — should be scraped because it exacerbates racial divisions and causes economic stagnation and unemployment (of whites!). He argues that economic growth is, ultimately, the only salvation from economic exclusion.
He argues, further, that BEE benefits only a few politically-connected individuals and does not reach the man in the “township” (his favourite townships being in Alexandria and Soweto).
This, as I will demonstrate, is complete horse poo and shows the DA’s scandalous ignorance and incompetence.
I am a BEE and EE hire. But for BEE requirement that are imposed by government, exercising its constitutional authority, I would not be employed by the firm. Yes, I am a sack of potatoes and my skills are intentionally under-utilized and ingeniously blunted. Yet, the job pays my rent, my car note and feeds my family.
I accept that my employment creates an economic inefficiencies. Not because I an unqualified or incapable, but because I am black! The company willingly bears the cost of my redundancy. My salary is an investment into a system of private corporate-sponsored apartheid.
This links to another thorny point for the DA: economic monopoly. Big firms, like the one I work for, are made up of people. The partnership of the firm, which is almost exclusively white and male, is drenched in apartheid ideology.
Corporate South Africa has out the perfect apartheid structure: economic apartheid.
Political apartheid is messy because it is loud and visible. It invites scrutiny by the media and therefore international accountability.
Economic apartheid is neat. It is an intricate system smoke and mirrors. The system uses terms “liberalism” or the “free market” to create credibility. It is not fronted by white men. Instead, it is relies on figureheads like Maimane and Mashaba who happily recite laundry lists of justifications for discrimination and exclusion. It’s the perfect system.
Under political apartheid black people are denied meaningful economic opportunities because they are black. Under economic apartheid apartheid black people are denied economic access because the “market” (read white men) demands it.
The market knows best, who are we to say otherwise?