(This article was first published in The Star newspaper, Johannesburg on March 23, 2007)
Christine Qunta’s piece “Skills gap a result of history” (The Star, Opinion and Analysis, March 14 2007) helps to clear some of the muddied waters in the discourse on affirmative action.
In convincing detail, Qunta challenges claims that affirmative action policies are the cause of the country’s skills shortage.
She marshals her argument by citing numerous legislative measures undertaken by successive colonial and apartheid governments engineered to prevent skills acquisition by black people.
She cites, amongst other laws, the Mines and Works Act of 1911 – “the first job reservation legislation [which] officially entrenched … hiring on the basis of race”, the Apprenticeship Act of 1922 and the 1951 Native Building Workers’ Act.
Qunta’s case is formidable. She explains restrictions on blacks through apprenticeship and education barriers; how they were precluded from competing with white tradesmen.
She outlines the limits placed on numbers of blacks trained each year; the over-crowding in black schools; the lack of facilities such as libraries and laboratories; the barring of blacks from key tertiary studies such as medicine or engineering.
Despite the exhaustive detail in Qunta’s piece, there are even more previous policy measures whose adverse effects on skills are not mentioned.
Most notable of these is the Bantu Education Act of 1953.
Remember that cabinet minister who once proclaimed in parliament to the thunderous applause of “honourable” members:
“When I have control of native education, I will reform it so that natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them.
“There is no place for him (the black child) in European society above the level of certain forms of labour.
“What is the use of teaching a Bantu child Mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”
Qunta exposes the remnant tentacles of Bantu Education’s legacy throughout.
A week ago, the Democratic Alliance (DA) made the tendentious claim that affirmative action was “at the very core of South Africa’s skills crisis”.
They argued that affirmative action “tenets run against the principles of merit and quality, and place race rather than individual ability as the key criterion for selection, both inside and outside of government”.
Sounds familiar, does it not?
“The first-ever non-racial democratic government is in effect more racist than its predecessors.”
A little scratching beneath the surface of what might appear to some to be reasonable words exposes the history of the racism in which their meaning becomes explicit.
So, just like Verwoerd stated in 1953, that “equality with [whites] is not for [blacks]”, today, 54 years later, the DA propounds the same thesis in which, were public policy to take their counsel, there would effectively be “no place for [black people] … above the level of certain forms of labour …”
Last week, the DA also said: “School education [has] been allowed to decline, as quality was sacrificed, especially in Maths and Science, in the race to improve the pass rate.”
In other words, the reason for poor Maths and Science performance in our schools is not the apartheid legacy which Verwoerd promulgated and implemented with such enthusiastic zealotry, but the supposed ineptness of the post-apartheid democratic government.
According to this logic, such ineptness is typical of, and inherent in, all black governments.
A truly classic exercise in sanitising Verwoerd – the epitome of 20th century racism.
And so, the fight-back campaign will not end yet.
In the light of available evidence pointing to the fact that the South African economy remains largely in white hands, how can persistent claims of “racism in reverse” be sustained?
That these claims should so dominate the pages of newspapers and airwaves illustrates how much dominant economic forces still superimpose themselves on public discourse.
Qunta’s challenge to historically white tertiary institutions – which she argues still indulge in forms of discrimination and thus slow the progress in producing trained graduates in technical areas such as engineering – is one we all ought to take seriously.
Perhaps, lastly, unpacking and demystifying the inherent racism which colours so much of our public discourse ought to be a necessary part of our education curriculum at all levels.