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Another Excerpt from A Bantu in My Bathroom – Building Up to the November Release of Eusebius McKaiser’s New Book

A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?In the build-up to the release of Eusebius McKaiser’s third book in November, Books LIVE will be featuring excerpts from the political commentator’s razor sharp debut, A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

This week’s excerpt is a chapter called “Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?” In it, McKaiser tackles some tough issues and important questions about affirmative action and its worth in the South African context. It follows on Books LIVE’s first excerpt called “A Bantu in My Bathroom!”

Affirmative action has its detractors, but McKaiser believes that it is justified. He argues his case by looking closely at three of the major criticisms levelled against it, that “affirmative action is racist”, “affirmative action undermines non-racialism” and “affirmative action is an insult to black people”, and proving that they are not valid.

Read the second in our series of excerpts from A Bantu in My Bathroom:

* * * * *

Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?

Should affirmative action appointees be embarrassed?

Is affirmative action morally defensible?

Does affirmative action undermine non-racialism?

I’ve never once given a talk on race, or been part of a panel discussion about race, and not had to field a question about affirmative action. And on every single occasion the person asking the question is filled with passion, often barely holding back on very strong emotion so as not to ruin the atmosphere perhaps, especially in university settings. Recently, for example, I gave a talk on race at Stellenbosch University. And, you bettcha, the same thing happened.

I absolutely loved the whole Stellenbosch experience, though. It was the first time I had given a talk in a cinema (on campus), complete with a guitarist doing his thing, and singing gently, as students and staff made their way inside. This being Stellenbosch, there was a pub right on site, and truth be told I was wonderfully tipsy before I even started talking. It made for an honest, flowing discussion, and the students, I suspect, appreciated my combination of engagement, and the fact that I was visibly sipping the Hunter’s Dry one of them had bought me.

I shared a lot of personal stories to make the point that we have racial baggage that we needlessly fear talking about. (In fact, my anecdotes and comment were based on another essay in this collection, ‘Racial baggage in four part harmony’.) I could see the students were relieved by my frank, personal style and tone. Universities can be rather sterile places, with emotion reserved for the drama department. So they quickly warmed to my newfound Jonathan ‘let’s talk, folks!’ Jansen style. (Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, is a public intellectual well known for his ability to speak the truth – or his truth – powerfully, but plainly.)

They asked questions and made comments straight from the heart, taking their cue from me. I was very pleased. We will never make progress in dealing with racial – and other – tensions if we cannot learn to speak frankly. We too often fear that frankness must lead to anger, and alienating ourselves from each other.

This talk gave me hope that younger South Africans can learn to speak openly to one another, but with empathy, and with a willingness to listen, to be persuaded, and to examine their own deeply held beliefs and desires. Academic discourse, sadly, does not normally allow for that sort of engagement. Which is why, in part, I refuse to be a full-time academic, and rather try to bridge a gap between my academic instincts, and my commitment to public debate.

And so it was in this spirit of frankness that a white, Afrikaans student posed a question long into the session. It was clear he had listened carefully, since he perfectly summarised in beautiful Afrikaans the nuances of my viewpoint. I appreciated that. But it was clear he had a very strong counterview that was about to be shared.

Do we not, he asked me, merely reinforce the worst of apartheid’s destructive racial constructions with policies in the new South Africa that still crudely distinguish between different racial groups? Did we not choose democracy over apartheid precisely because we wanted to escape racial categories? Why, then, do we have policies that are couched in the language of which apartheid’s architects would have fully approved? Should we not, as democrats, know better?

He didn’t share a personal story, but the controlled tension in his voice gave a clear sense that he saw himself as a young South African who only happened to be white, and who was committed to the non-racial ideal that our new society is based on, but who found himself routinely labelled a white South African rather than simply a South African. Worse, he could not guarantee that his white skin might count against him when he applied for a place at a medical school, or for a job.

It was a difficult cluster of questions, and I could only sketch him the outline of a full answer. The full answer, of course, is what I want to give in this essay. The challenge from the student can be crisply formulated: is affirmative action even in principle okay?

I want to engage with some of the biggest worries opponents of affirmative action have, and so give a sense of why, despite empathising with the logic and emotional distress of that Stellenbosch student, I think affirmative action is justified.

‘Affirmative action is racist’

I often encounter the claim that affirmative action is racist. The logic is that affirmative action discriminates against whites by excluding them from certain positions based solely on the colour of their skin. Job advertisements, for example, might say or imply things along the lines of, ‘Affirmative action candidates will be preferentially considered.’ Is this racist? No. Here’s why.

First, I can certainly see why some people might be tempted to see these policies as racist. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if I say, ‘You guys are equally good for this job but I’m going to give it to Sipho rather than to Freek because Sipho is black’, you will think I am discriminating against Freek on the basis of his skin colour.

And you’d be right – that is discrimination. Many supporters of affirmative action would not admit it is discrimination. But it is. I have no doubt that at least some jobs that I have got in the past have been on this basis, even in cases where my qualifications might have been decent. In South Africa, for example, there are very few black philosophy lecturers. And if I had to apply for a philosophy teaching job, and another candidate was white but not much better than me in terms of qualifications, most universities would choose me in that case just because I am black. That is racial discrimination. The Stellenbosch student is spot-on.

But here’s the thing: racial discrimination is not always legally or morally wrong. This is why it is short-sighted for a white parent to simply cite an example of their son losing out on a job application and think they have indicted the new South Africa as a racist, anti-white den. Not so. Discrimination can, actually, be morally and legally justified. And that is something that is missed in the emotional, and very personal, reactions of South Africans to the affirmative action debate. Few are even capable of listening to my claim that discrimination can be justified. They might drop their mug of coffee and Marie biscuit while reading this paragraph and dismiss its contents outright. (Sadly, critical dialogue can be hamstrung by strong emotion.) Let me explain then how discrimination can be legally and morally acceptable.

If discrimination is rational then it is acceptable. The oldest example in the book, of course, is that we discriminate against blind people. We don’t allow them to drive cars on our roads. But we allow people who can see to drive (provided they pass a driver’s test). But the discrimination against blind people is rational. It is rational because the ability to see is relevant to driving. If you cannot see, you cannot drive accurately and safely. So this is an example of fair discrimination. So the question one must ask is not, ‘Does affirmative action discriminate against whites?’ Of course it does! The real question to ask is, ‘Is it fair that affirmative action discriminates against whites?’ The answer is ‘yes’.

When two adults apply for a job, they bring history and personal narrative to bear on that job application. History has resulted in disproportionate opportunities for development and upward mobility, distributed, deliberately and structurally, across race and gender lines in South Africa. Our history over the last few centuries, and which reached a climax in the middle and late twentieth century, is a history of fierce, unfair discrimination. Jobs were routinely reserved for race groups, with the best being reserved for whites. Government spending on citizens disproportionately benefited white over non-white communities. Particularly insulting was the education system: more was spent by the state on a white child’s education than a black child.

One paragraph could never capture the full story of apartheid’s injustice. Yet the number of South Africans who debate affirmative action in an ahistorical vacuum continue to shock and disappoint me. The underlying sentiment is often that only natural ability and differences in work ethics explain the strengths and weaknesses of two candidates applying for a job. This is a bald-faced lie everywhere but particularly so here in South Africa. Two candidates do not appear at interviews for medical school or for a job from nowhere. They appear from life narratives that have shaped their current circumstances.
Anyone who denies this is culpably forgetting history, callously ignoring its reach into the present.

And this is why affirmative action is rational, and morally acceptable. It is an attempt to correct past injustices that were inflicted on us specifically along racial lines. Those policies were designed in racial terms, and implemented in the language of race, with the apartheid government treating different race groups differently. And since the purpose of affirmative action is fair – to reverse the immorality that has resulted from that racist ideology – the discrimination against whites which comes with affirmative action policies, is justified too. Just as the discrimination against blind people is rational, so discrimination against whites in the form of affirmative action is rational also because it is necessary in order to achieve a more economically and socially just South Africa.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ I have heard many people say. And, trust me, I have heard the full gamut of objections. I cannot rehearse them all here. But one of the objections that irritates me most is the idea that we could not possibly know when to stop implementing affirmative action. This is an exaggerated worry.

We have a rough idea of what a just society looks like. A just South Africa is not one in which there is a perfect match between the country’s demographics, and the demographics of the workplace, Parliament, sports teams, etc. That kind of numerically exact demographic representation would be the worst kind of deliberate design. Those kinds of projects are often rightly lampooned as ‘racial bean-counting’, but fears about such bean-counting are grossly exaggerated. Clearly, if 10% of accountants are black, we have a structural problem. If 65% are black, we have less of a problem. Similarly, if only 3%, for argument sake, of all A-rated scientists are women, then we have an unjust situation. This does not mean that 53% or so of all A-rated scientists must be female, but the injustice would be obvious if the figure was 3%.

And that is the point: in order to reverse obviously unjust situations like the hypothetical (or perhaps all too real) ones sketched here, it might well be the case that whites (or men) will not be treated the same as other groups. But this is justified because the reason is acceptable. The reason would be to achieve a more just society. In practice, this might mean giving more bursaries to black African students, say, than any other group, deliberately – or it might mean special research grants specifically for female scientists. These kinds of interventions do not undermine the idea of equality. They do the opposite: they take equality seriously enough to take account of how unequal starting points in life can skew fair competition between people. This therefore requires differential treatment in order to create, over time, a society that is genuinely egalitarian.

Anyone who says that affirmative action is racist simply does not get the meaning of substantive equality. Or they do not understand the connection between equality and justice. If they did, they’d abandon the objection instantly.

‘Affirmative action undermines non-racialism’

Some people claim that if we want to achieve a non-racial South Africa, then we should not adopt affirmative action policies. The concern is that policies that differentiate between race groups reinforce differences between people. And if you reinforce the idea that race groups exist and differ from one another, you are less likely to ever achieve a non-racial South Africa. Is there any merit in this?

I struggle to see why these concerns are legitimate. I have never understood why racial differences should be inherently divisive. But let me grapple with the concerns of opponents of affirmative action.
I think one fear people have is that if we talk about race ‘too much’ we will stay in the racist past that we are trying to move away from. I often encounter this anxiety when I am on radio. Just the other day, for example, on Talk Radio 702 I was being interviewed about an open letter I had written to the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee. In the letter I had criticised her decision to take off the newspaper’s website an image of a painting of the state president that showed, among other things, an artist’s impression of the president’s penis. I thought she had allowed political bullies to get the better of her. And I said so. But along the way I suggested that the editor’s decision also undermined black people in a sense, even though her intentions and motives were to be sympathetic to a deep sense of disgust among supporters of the president.

I thought that she had inadvertently displayed low expectations of black readers of her newspaper, low expectations of black politicians, and low expectations of angry black supporters of the president. I thought she should have held her fellow black citizens to a higher intellectual standard – as she surely would a white group that objected to a similar image of one of their heroes. So she let blacks down in her very attempt to seem emotionally mature.

The radio talk show host was astounded that the editor could be accused of having undermined blacks, given she was trying to respect black people’s feelings! Lo and behold, as always happens when this kind of discussion takes place, the very first caller predictably shouted, ‘Why do we still refer to people’s skin colour?! Why?!’ They weren’t interested in the real issue – whether I was fair in saying the editor had held blacks to a low standard of dialogue. The caller did what so many South Africans do – simply pleaded for us to stop talking about race.

That is not an isolated example. I could fill books with anecdotal examples. I once participated in a debate on Sakina Kamwendo’s talk show on Metro FM talking about coloured identity. We actually called it ‘The Great Coloured Debate’. And, you’ve guessed it, one of the very first callers shouted, ‘Why are we referring to people as coloured in this day and age? My goodness!’ It never occurred to them that not using the word ‘coloured’ wouldn’t make my coloured sisters and brothers who live in homogeneous, coloured, apartheid geographical spaces – still – from self-identifying as coloured. Linguistic denial can’t make deeply-held, and very personal, racial identities disappear.

So we’d better get over our fear of the language of race, and talk. There is no reason why the language of race should logically lead to racism. I can recognise which of my friends are black, coloured or white without using that recognition as a reason to be racist. We should stop blaming racialism for our racism. It is a bit like blaming your sexism on the fact that you can see that women and men look different. Racism’s the enemy. The language of race, and seeing differences in each other, is not the enemy.

‘Affirmative action is an insult to black people’

I remember once watching the exuberant Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, being interviewed on television and explaining with great enthusiasm to the host of the television show why he finds references to himself as ‘black’ an insult to the merit of his achievements. Being referred to as ‘the first black dean’, for example, diminished his hard work, and academic excellence, he argued. He widened the anecdote’s reach to make the point that affirmative action, more generally, undermines the achievements of black people by creating the impression that blacks only need to meet lower standards than everyone else in order to be awarded accolades, jobs, etc. That, surely, is an insult to black people, and reinforces the idea that they can only do well if they are treated as handicapped and given special assistance that would not be given to other competitors. Is that really the message of affirmative action? I’m not convinced it is.
Of course it is possible that there are personal and emotional costs that come with affirmative action policies: one might – whether true or not – be recognised as, or assumed to be, an affirmative action candidate. This could result, yes, in negative stereotypes about one’s skill-set, or gossip about whether or not one truly deserves a particular post.

The personal and social cost can be tough to bear. But how much weight should be attached to this in one’s overall assessment of affirmative action policies?

We do not have decisive empirical evidence about how the majority of black South Africans feel about the design of race-based policies aimed at restoring past imbalances. So we are left guessing whether Jonathan Jansen’s gripes are representative of the entire black population or whether they are isolated. After all, for every such example, I could cite a counter-example of someone who does not mind being an affirmative action appointee.

The reason I am fine with being labelled an affirmative action candidate is because I understand the justice argument for why the policy exists. If I had a problem with being an affirmative action beneficiary, that would be an indication that I had missed the point of the policy. Put it this way: when Jansen expresses deep annoyance at being thought of as an affirmative action appointment his annoyance is not a sign that he is a champion of black excellence. By being annoyed he is simply demonstrating that he has failed to grasp or to accept the justification for affirmative action in the first place. If you understand, accept and internalise the reasons for affirmative action – the goals
of substantive equality and justice – then you ought not to be embarrassed at being an affirmative action appointment or being perceived to be one.

Consider this analogy. I am often gobsmacked by some of my friends who are genuinely hurt by perceptions that they are gay. At least one of my friends now practically introduces himself as ‘not gay’ in anticipation of the assumption that he is. Why is it such a big deal to be mistaken for being gay? Would someone mind being mistakenly thought of as the most attractive person on the planet or the smartest person in the room or the nicest guy ever? I suspect not. The only reasonable explanation is that being gay is not something the person wants to be mistaken for. But, if the person truly understands that there is nothing wrong with being gay, then they would stop having anxiety attacks about the mistaken identity. At the root of the discomfort is a failure to properly grasp that homosexuality is acceptable, and innocuous.

Similarly, anyone who truly understands the logic of affirmative action and who has taken that logic to heart should not be fazed by being teased for being an affirmative action candidate. This is not necessarily easy, I admit, and it can be tiresome to experience insults and venom. But it does seem to me that most people who are easily affected by these jibes believe in their heart of hearts that affirmative action is embarrassing. And that is the problem here: the failure to take seriously the compelling arguments in favour of affirmative action.

Affirmative action is not racist; it is not an obstacle to non-racialism and it is not an insult to black people. It is legally and morally justified, because it serves to achieve a substantively equal society, one that has redressed the racist structural consequences of apartheid.

* * * * *


Read the previous excerpt:

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

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