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Race is no longer a proxy for dis/advantage

John Kane-Berman says continued use of race leads to absurdities

It is misleading to keep using race as a "proxy" for "disadvantage"

About six weeks ago the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane, said, "We dream of living in a society where race is no longer a proxy for disadvantage". His dream has come true – so much so that it is not only unnecessary, but also misleading, to keep using race as a proxy. The evidence is conclusive.

The proportion of the top living standards category (LSM 10) accounted for by black Africans has risen from 5% in 2004 to 30% in 2015. In the next three highest LSMs, their proportion now heavily outnumbers that of whites. Black Africans also outnumber whites classified as middle class. Estimates of the size of this class vary between 4.2 million and double that, but one study three years ago showed that black Africans accounted for more than half of middle-class people.

It is hardly surprising then that between 2005 and 2013, according to FNB, the proportion of buyers of property in previously-white suburbs who were black African grew from 23% to 32%. Looking at home ownership more broadly, Statistics South Africa figures for 2016 showed that black Africans owned 424 000 mortgaged homes, against a figure for whites of 408 000. (If fully paid-off properties – including state-provided housing – are taken into account, black Africans own 12 times as many as whites).

In 2016, there were 5.2 million households with annual incomes above R132 000. Almost 40% of these were black African households. In 2017, there were almost 11 million motor vehicles registered in South Africa – more than three times the total number of whites old enough to qualify for driving licences.

Turning to education, whites were awarded 20 924 first degrees by universities in 2015, the figure for black Africans being 54 631 – almost three times as high. The total number of whites with degrees was 632 000; the total number of black Africans holding degrees was 837 000.

None of this should obscure the fact that the proportions of black Africans suffering various kinds of disadvantage outweigh the proportions of whites (or coloured people, or Indians/Asians) suffering the same disadvantages – among them unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy. Greater proportions of black Africans live in shack settlements and depend on public health services than is the case with other people.

But in terms of income, home ownership, living standards, education, and membership of the middle class, race is no longer a proxy for advantage. The same applies to investment on the JSE, where direct black (including coloured and Indian/Asian) ownership accounts for 10% of the top hundred companies, and indirect black ownership another 13%. If shares owned by foreigners are excluded from the calculations, the black share of the JSE is almost 40%.

To discount all this, and to continue insisting that race is a proxy for disadvantage, is to ignore salient facts. It is also unnecessary, since South Africa's overriding problems of low growth, poor schooling and public health care, a weakening state, and rampant crime can all be measured (and tackled) directly. No proxies, or other substitutes, are necessary when one can measure something accurately, as Ghaleb Cachalia, a DA MP, has pointed out.

Further, arguing that race is still a problem is a distraction from all these other problems. Indeed, the state's capacity to deal with them is undermined by continued implementation or enforcement of racial policies in procurement, employment, the issue of mining licences, or whatever. Moreover, when companies such as Sasol exclude white employees from a share- ownership scheme, they are practising racism pure and simple.

The continued use of race also leads to absurdities – for example, by continued classification of Cyril Ramaphosa, Patrice Motsepe, and other multimillionaires as somehow perpetually "disadvantaged" because of their race. When their supposed "disadvantage" is measured against the real disadvantage inflicted by affirmative action policies on, say, a 20-year-old white matriculant from a poor family seeking his first job in the police, the absurdity becomes an injustice.

The DA should be leading the country away from this type of thing, not helping to perpetuate the anachronistic falsehood that race is still a proxy for disadvantage.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.