It is not possible to have liberty for some and not for others in the same country. Whilst blacks were being oppressed by apartheid in South Africa, the liberty of whites was being compromised by the measures necessary to suppress the aspirations of their fellow citizens (actually non citizens).
Recently I reread Martin Luther King’s great “I have a dream” speech. I was again moved and inspired by its central message: a call for liberty for all Americans. King was not asking for the playing field to be tilted the other way. He was not asking for special privileges for black Americans so as to right the wrongs of the past. He knew that for liberty to prevail, the law should treat everyone the same; that there is no liberty for one unless there is equality before the law for all.
Our home grown Black Consciousness movement drew inspiration from American black power activists, and primarily from Martin Luther King’s racially liberating call for freedom. We shared his dream. We applauded his efforts to persuade Americans to choose liberty. And we attempted to persuade South Africans to choose liberty also as the goal of black emancipation from the clutches of the leviathan apartheid state. It was liberty we wanted, not the opportunity to seek compensation for past wrongs, or to discriminate against any other racial or cultural group. We knew that if we in turn became the oppressors, we would be denying ourselves true liberty.
We did not plan to use the power of Parliament to the detriment of anyone else, as it had been so unjustly used against us, although we despised whites who relied on a paternalistic government to protect them from black competition. We envisaged a dispensation that would be truly non-racial, where government and the laws of the country would not discriminate on the grounds of colour. We, who had tasted the bitterness of racially discriminatory legislation, knew that many people were sickened by these laws, and not only the people against whom they had been directed.
Children who were born in South Africa after the 1994 election will be turning sixteen this year. Those who were eleven years old will be turning twenty-seven. The white children among these cannot possibly be accused of having perpetrated or aided and abetted apartheid. Should they not be exempted from the laws which impose affirmative action in business and the work place? When will racial discrimination be expunged from our statute books once and for all? When will this country have equality at law? When will we have true liberty? When will my children and your children know the joy of living in a truly free country where their legal status is no longer circumscribed by race?
I am dedicated to the eradication of racially preferential and discriminatory policies from the SA statute books. Martin Luther King’s immortal words resound hauntingly in my mind: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Affirmative action is politically unnecessary, economically irrational and morally unjust. History shows that affirmative action nowhere has produced the results envisaged or desired by its proponents. Empirical evidence abounds to the effect that wherever affirmative action has been implemented, the benefits accrue mainly to those few individuals in the target group who are politically well-connected. It has never brought about the socio-economic upliftment of the genuinely needy who (it is said) are the intended beneficiaries.
In America, African Americans as a group still occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder despite decades of affirmative action intended to uplift them and compensate them for past injustices. Japanese Americans, by contrast, are currently among the most materially successful in that country, even though in 1942, against the background of WWII and ‘the yellow peril’, Japanese Americans were incarcerated in concentration camps by order of President Roosevelt. This resulted in more than 100,000 Japanese men, women and children being shipped from California to Arkansas: “places where nobody had lived before and no one has lived since” in the words of Thomas Sowell. From that experience the Japanese began to rebuild their lives from scratch, without any compensation whatsoever. By 1960, Japanese Americans had more representation in the professions, relative to their numbers, than did whites, and by 1969, the average personal income of Japanese Americans was 11% above the national average.
In 2004, black households had the lowest median annual income ($30,134) of all identified ethnic groups in the USA (U.S. Census Bureau News, August 30, 2005). Households identified as Asian boasted the highest median income ($57,518). Hispanic households, with a median income of $34,241 surpassed those of African Americans. This, after decades of affirmative action policies that had identified blacks as the chief beneficiaries. Something must be seriously amiss with affirmative action policies in the USA.
In Malaysia, too, affirmative action has not been a success. Indeed, Anwar Ibrahim, the much-harassed leader of the opposition, has vowed to dismantle the New Economic Policy enacted in 1971 as a legislative mechanism intended to bring about affirmative action, wealth redistribution and poverty reduction for the indigenous Malay majorities who had not prospered to the same socio-economic levels generally as the Chinese-Malays and other non-indigenous Malays. Not to be outdone, the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has reportedly committed himself to securing the repeal of the law requiring that listed companies set aside 30% of equity for Malays. It is interesting that in the process he is challenging head-on the New Economic Policy that his father Abdul Razak had set in motion in 1971.
But, you may ask, if affirmative action were abandoned in South Africa, what means could we use to aid those who have suffered the multiple deprivations imposed by apartheid? How are they to overcome decades of disadvantage? In my view, the starting point should not be race, or any other category defined by ascribed or inherited characteristics, but simple poverty. The purpose of our interventions should be neither compensation nor retribution. Our aim should be to help poor families across all communities in such a way that their dignity, pride and desire for self reliance are not compromised, but rather enhanced. There are many pro-active ways which will enable the self empowerment of the poor without diminishing their self respect or engendering a sense of victimhood. One such manner, recently mentioned in the press, is to allocate shares in state-owned enterprises, as was done in the newly formed Czech Republic and to transfer inhabitable superfluous state-owned land to poor households on a non-racial basis.
I am aware that my opposition to affirmative action will bring down the wrath of many upon my head. So be it. But I must respond, in the words of an earlier Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” I believe in the magnanimity of the human spirit. I believe that as poor whites are proportionately numerically negligible, fellow black South Africans, in the spirit of Ubuntu, will be open to poor people of all races being accommodated in the empowerment programme. I believe that South Africans can look beyond race and vested interest and outrun America in eradicating preferential policies once and for all, in whatever guise it comes. I truly believe that liberty is indivisible, if some of us do not have liberty, none of us have liberty.
Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation (original publisher of this article), and writes for African Liberty.