Let’s unpack unequal opportunity in South Africa
So much of the trouble in South Africa today is that we seem unable to hear each other. Like a disintegrating relationship between two people who used to love each other, our first instinct is to blame, attack, and find fault, rather than listen, empathise and attempt to understand. The difference is that unlike a relationship, we can’t simply “end it”. Our country belongs to all who live in it, and our society works best when we work together. So we had better start finding a way to have a rational, empathic conversation about those things that stand in the way of our common success.
For one, “freedom” and “basic rights” in South Africa do not mean the same thing to everyone, because for most South Africans these are just theoretical concepts, not lived realities. This is the core reason I entered politics, and it remains my core motivation. Unless we can extend meaningful opportunity to all South Africans, we will continue to struggle to be a cohesive, prosperous country. So long as people have literally nothing to lose, they will continue to feel aggrieved and feel that it is ‘okay’ to step over and on others to get ahead.
So when having this conversation, we must avoid the temptation to take immediate offence, and make a special effort to understand, and indeed to be understood.
There are two main categories of unequal opportunity that most white South Africans still enjoy, that most black South Africans do not. Firstly, “never having to contend with assumptions about your integrity, intelligence, competence, achievements, ability to pay…” that are made “simply because you are black”, as Berenice Paulse eloquently describes in this excellent article.
And secondly, the superior access to tangible opportunities available to them to get ahead in life. White children generally live in areas with better schools, better transport, better libraries and safer neighbourhoods. Their families are generally better educated, so better able to read to them and help them with homework, and generally better resourced, so better able to give them a head start in life, be it through better nutrition in the early years or through a loan to start a business in early adulthood. That this racialised inequality of opportunity exists is, frankly, indisputable.
By its very nature, this advantage is self-perpetuating and will persist across generations until we successfully expand these opportunities to black children and their families, an aspiration of our Constitution that remains elusive. Thus, endemic black poverty and racial inequality are persistent features of our nation. I say generally, because of course there are exceptions. SA has a growing black middle class and white poverty exists.
The DA is committed to expanding opportunities to address racial imbalances. This is not a new position. It is what attracted me to the DA. While other parties focus on manipulating social outcomes and dividing South Africans against each other, the DA has a deep and authentic commitment to expanding opportunities to all. As one of our previous campaigns declared, we believe in Freedom you can use. As then DA leader Helen Zille unequivocally stated “our policy is unashamedly that black advancement benefits everyone and if there’s any South African who doesn’t like that, there’s many parties to choose from”.
We fight for equal rights and opportunity for all individuals, no matter their race, class or creed. And we believe this is in everyone’s best interest. In my Federal Congress speech last month I said: “As African liberals, we understand that communities, customs and tradition play an important role in shaping individuals. We recognise the spirit of Ubuntu – that I am who I am through other people.”
This is not a zero-sum game. The hopes of one should not be the fears of another. Our focus must be on the wealth this country can build in the future. A wealth we can all share in. Not on fighting over the spoils of our past.
We are not interested in protecting privilege for one group, or in shifting privilege from one group to another. We are committed to growing privilege, with the ultimate objective of equal access to opportunity.
How do we expand opportunity to all? Apartheid was a legislated system of deprivation. Two decades into our democracy, that system of deprivation is still largely intact. This is a result of the long tentacles of its legacy, but also a result of the signal failure of the post-democratic governments (especially recent ones) to improve public education at the primary and secondary levels, among other failures.
As a nation, we must fight for quality education for all our children. We must prioritise job-creating economic growth, so that more and more people are brought into our economy. We must support full individual ownership of title deeds, so that people have collateral to use to start businesses and build personal wealth that they can transfer to their children. We must reject vanity state spending on items such as SAA and VIP security, in favour of spending on education, infrastructure, housing and land reform.
As individuals, we must all ask more of ourselves. As fathers, mothers, teachers, community members, business leaders, voters, we must all ask: how can I build a brighter future for all South Africa’s children?
If SA is going to succeed, we need to break out of our racial laagers. We must break the continuous cycle of racial nationalism that is consuming us and start seeing ourselves as individuals who are all connected. Individuals who work best when we work together. We need to approach our future with love, not hatred. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “Let’s recommit to work towards our common goal: a nation where all of us are winners, all of us have shelter, food and education.”
Some media commentators have suggested that I quit the DA. Nothing could be further from my mind. I will never give up on the idea of South Africans of all races coming together to “find each other”, working together to address the inequalities that exist in our nation. For me, the DA embodies this dream and together we will stay the course.