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"The sins of the fathers"

(affirmative action in South Africa)

James Bean
Edinburgh, Scotland

Sitting in a graduation ceremony recently, I realised how much progress South Africa has made in its efforts to integrate a generation of racially unbiased students. The racial balance of students graduating seemed closer than ever before to the country's demographics. The tearful expressions of overwhelming joy and pride on the faces of the students and their parents told a powerful story. A triumphant story that started with severe oppression and with very little hope of their children ever being included in such a proceeding. For many of us white students it is a story that we will never be able to fully comprehend.

There were many courageous individuals who opposed the nationalist government during the Apartheid years in search of the dream of a united rainbow nation. Helen Suzman, for example, displayed enormous tenacity during the years that she spent opposing a dominating government that was completely unopen to compromise, and on many occasions, to rational thought. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned because he unreservedly criticized the Apartheid government. Steve Biko and thousands more paid with their lives during their struggle to restore South Africa to a country of equality, where their children could walk freely and acquire an education without being subject to racial discrimination.

Many white South Africans today share the feeling that they were helpless and that their efforts to resist the government’s decisions would have been futile. To me, their non-intervention should be perceived as implicit support. For those who were allowed to vote, their mark on the ballot sheet was their only method in which to voice their objections to a government that was rapidly gaining strength in its destructive ways. Sadly, those objections were too few. One need only to have looked at the composition of seats in parliament at that time to see that the majority of white South Africans thought racial discrimination was a good idea. Why was this so?

Was it as simple reasoning as self-preservation? Did those voters callously endorse Apartheid because the "privileges and fruits" of Apartheid&Mac226; went solely to the white citizens? Or, was it a case of sheer ignorance? Most people would have been aware of the legislation enforced to ensure an "ethnically clean" South Africa. The Bantu Education Act, the forced removals of hundreds of thousands of non-white South Africans to Bantustans, the Group Areas Act, the Shared Amenities Act and the strict pass laws were the cornerstones of the Apartheid regime. I think that people's votes would not have been so easily influenced by politicians' persuasive motivations had they known how brutally these laws were enforced.

Probably the greatest harm caused to future generations of Black South Africans was the Bantu Education Act of 1953, introduced by Dr Verwoerd as Minister of Native Affairs. This Law deliberately condemned Black children to an inferior education. Verwoerd’s motivation behind its implementation was as follows: "What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? What is the use of subjecting a Native Child to a curriculum, which, in the first instance is traditionally European? I just want to remind Honourable Members that if the Native inside South Africa today in any kind of school in existence is being taught to expect that he will live his adult life under a policy of equal rights, he is making a big mistake." I find it difficult to comprehend how supposedly educated people did not see through this transparent arrogance and anticipate its crippling effect on a future generation of South Africans. Perhaps it was because of the obvious transparency that these "illusory ideals" were able to muscle up so much support?

The purpose for my asking these questions is not to be blatantly controversial and liberal, nor is the purpose to sit on the righteous moral high ground. I raise these points because the repercussions of those events have created massive social problems today. We, the new generation of South Africa, have a responsibility to try to correct those problems. It is only by understanding what happened in the past that we will be able to understand the resulting challenges ahead of us today. Now, after the transition to the New South Africa, it appears that the opinions of those who once supported Apartheid have changed -- or have they?

They best way for me to illustrate this point is through the use of an example: If you randomly ask white South Africans (incl. yourself!) what they think about the Apartheid regime, except for the occasional lost right-winger, people would generally answer by condemning the system before describing the gross injustices and lack of respect for human rights that resulted in a suppressive society where a minority benefited and the vast majority suffered.

Then ask what they think about the methods (specifically Affirmative Action) used to rectify those social problems. People have a right to their own opinion and you will find that opinions vary somewhat more over this issue. Those who don't support affirmative action advocate that two wrongs don't make a right and that Affirmative Action in the workplace, where a black or coloured person gets first preference for a job offer, is blatantly discriminatory. Those competing for the jobs find it unfair and employers often feel dissatisfied because the best person for the job is not always the one who gets the job. Those who support Affirmative Action place more weight on reversing past mistakes by creating jobs for those who were previously disadvantaged in order to achieve a more socially balanced country. Affirmative Action, in particular, is enforced by law, but there are other unregulated development programs that share the same goals. Thankfully, many of the “home grown” South African companies that were able to grow into large conglomerate corporations during the isolated years are amongst those who are giving their much needed support to these programs.

There is however an unsettling number of people who follow an inconsistent thought pattern, which to me seems contradictory, and it is to them that this article is directed. It goes something like this: Initially, they supported Apartheid. Then in the New South Africa they re-evaluated their political ideas and condemn the “misdoings” of Apartheid. Yet in the same breathe they reject Affirmative Action, our strongest available mechanism to reverse Apartheid. Their failure to accept Affirmative Action seems to imply that either their views have not changed much or, that the repercussions of the system that they once supported are not their problem. Many people may not find this sequence to be inconsistent, but those who do may well share my feeling that this group of people have not actually re-evaluated their political ideas but merely adapted them in order to prevent themselves being ostracised form a recovering society that no longer tolerates the philosophy of the Nationalist Apartheid.

Being part of a new generation of white South African youths we find ourselves asking why we must carry the burden for actions which we had no control over. Why should "the sins of the father be visited upon the son?" Affirmative action is not a perfect solution and many of the criticisms of it are well founded, but it is the best solution that we have to our uniquely South African problem. We have a dilemma where economic motivations find themselves face to face with social solutions. We need to accept that Affirmative action plays a crucial role in the restoration of South Africa and that the economic problems and social solutions are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

There is no quick-fix solution and the road to recovery will be a bumpy ride. There is incredible potential in Africa and especially in South Africa, the economic power-house of this continent. There are many important issues that need to be addressed in the coming years. The speed of our success will largely be decided by how the people of South Africa, across both ethnic and cultural divides, work together in persuing these objectives. The following expression taken from a Zulu proverb, meaning “together we can conquer all” should ring loud in the hearts and ears of all South Africans: "siyobabili siyonqoba!"

Published in In Motion Magazine November 13, 2003.

Also see: In Defense of Affirmative Action