I am a white, English speaking South African, very nearly fifty years old, a chartered accountant. This places me in a fairly narrow stereotype, and gives me one particular view of what is going on around me.
There are however all manner of things which we all know about our South African history. Anyone who now disputes these would rival Rip van Winkel.
Apartheid was awful, it was an institutionalised crime wave. People had property stolen, they had dignity stolen. Murder and assault were committed in the name of the law. Families were broken up, and talented breadwinners were denied the right to achieve their full potential. While young law and commerce students were happily debating, and being taught about restraint of trade agreements and their potential ineffectiveness (because no-one had a right to deprive someone of his ability to earn a living), one little, not so silent, codicil to these agreements was never mentioned. It was quite alright, in fact one hundred per cent legal, to deny the majority of the population the right to earn a living. We had many very effective laws to do that. We didn’t really debate those, not in my varsity classes anyway.
We all know that different South Africans went to different schools, in different parts of the country, were taught different things, and had vastly differing access to public money and facilities. Economic, academic, professional skills and wealth was ruthlessly limited to white South Africans, and of course thousands and thousands of white immigrants. We needed immigrants because of local skills shortages.
White people were all called “Sir” or “Madam” and black people were called nothing at all. They all looked the same anyway, except of course for the few good ones who may have lived or worked in our businesses and homes, and who towed the line. They were okay. In fact some of them were really quite clever.
There were also a few really clever ones, but they were all communists, or at best anarchists. We needed to be protected from them and their type.
Our companies were very successful, except that, just like the Springbok rugby team which ended up on internal tours, endlessly playing each other in mock test matches, they simply became huge internal conglomerates. They bought diverse local businesses just to use their spare cash. They were profitable and paid their taxes, sometimes according to strange retroactive tax laws (remember Barend), and saw their taxes used for, amongst many other things, guns, ammunition and publicly funded heart transplants. We were inordinately proud of all of these achievements, from Louis Washkansky to artillery that could knock the rifle out of a man’s hand from twenty kilometres without so much as marking him. Those were the days. That was before the country had gone so badly to the dogs.
That was all before the gridlock traffic in Fourways. It was before rampant hijacking, rape and murder. That was before all the corruption and rolling power outages. That was back when people sat in their allocated seats in a football stadium. It was when we used to be able to ride our bicycles to school, and when maths teachers could still do arithmetic. It was back when our children could get employment on merit. It was back when the lane markings on the roads were still painted, and when black taxis vaguely used the lanes, and if they didn’t they got locked up. In fact there were so few black taxis back in the good old days that they were hardly a nuisance at all.
Those were the good old days when South Africans were white, and Africans were black. South Africans were not Africans, and Africans were not South Africans. It was a very neat, very clear definition, unlike the messy stuff around today.
We had national service of course, which was a bit inconvenient – but then if you stayed at varsity for long enough you could always avoid it, or at worst go to Pretoria to do some administrative job as an officer. That was not too bad, and was a bit more patriotic than the packed-for-Perth brigade who were just scared of the army. If you knew someone, or could pull some strings you could always go to the Navy where some of the Permanent Force could speak English. If you were any good at rugby the army was the perfect place for you to park off while the talent scouts sought you out for a bursary at Tukkies or Stellenbosch.
So what has changed?
It has become very politically incorrect to moan about your black colleagues, career limiting in fact.
Standard braai language nowadays will have a sprinkling of fairly predictable phrases. These will seldom be openly derogatory. In fact, if anyone says anything that is openly derogatory, he should not go to the toilet on his own. If he does, the others will say, “He really needs to get into the new South Africa. He has just not adapted. Someone should talk to him.” (Someone else.)
Then the conversation will continue with comments like:
- The playing fields are level now, in my company it is all about equal opportunity.
- We hire and promote on merit.
- They really need to be more assertive.
- We really need to retain our white guys, but they just can’t see a future.
- These Indian guys are all flash, but one of my best guys took me for an authentic Indian curry when I was down in Durban. It was really good.
- I’ve got one really promising black guy, but even he is battling to cut it.
- You know, even the black parents at my kids’ school prefer to have white teachers for their kids.
- We can’t keep our black staff, they are such job hoppers and just go for the money.
- I’m looking for some BEE partners, but they either think they know everything, or they just expect to walk in and call the shots. Anyway I am not going to give quarter of my company away. I worked damned hard for it.
- It’s better to use casuals – you just can’t get rid of under-performers these days.
- I’m getting green cards for the family, just in case.
- All the Metro cops are corrupt. The other day I was stopped at a roadblock and asked to blow, and for R100 I just drove straight through, no problem.
- I’m going to smack the next clown who tries to clean my windscreen at a robot. They are all just scouts for hijacking syndicates anyway.
- The cops are useless, I just use them to get a case number so that I can claim from insurance. I got a complete upgrade on my flat screen TV after the last burglary.
- We are trying to get more black staff in, but they are always at funerals. If Jake White could just select a side on merit we might stand a chance.
The best is always:
- I am not a racist but………
The irony is completely lost. We all love to boo when Kevin Pietersen comes in to bat. “Turn the T-bone steak man! You’re going to burn it.”
So if this is all so obvious, and so comfortable, and we are still having our braais and even winning the Rugby World Cup, why should we bother with all of the awkward transformation?
Because it is just the right thing to do.
Because there are thousands of wonderful people out there who just need a chance, a chance for their piece of the sun, but also a chance to make their full contribution.
They need a chance also to show that there are new, better ways of doing things.
They need a chance to bring real meaning into our workplaces. Profit and productivity are essential. Growth is essential. Meaning is critical, and our youth are clamouring to have meaning in what they do, and how they do it.
Transformation is not only about demographics of staffing and ownership, and scorecards and all those other good things. It is about personal transformation – it is about giving someone else the help they need, and that someone else needs to include people who might look and sound a little different from us.
Maybe our next few braais will be a little more colourful!