Black, Like Me

Hello, South Africa. What is Black Employment Equity? Is it (to coin a popular “black” phrase) for real? Does it work? Some white people I’ve met don’t seem to think so, but it is okay, cos they’re just a bunch of racist douchebags anyway…

BOO!: Watch out, South Africans. This black guy's coming to take your job. Oh noes!

While I want nothing more than to ignore racial bias, poke fun at racism, and just generally take a huge crap on all things based around negative stereotyping of any race, a minor tiff with a friend has forced me to drudge this topic up and give it the “Life, like TV” treatment.

In personification of my immortal insensitivity and complete ignorance towards white people’s feelings, I brought up Black Economic Empowerment, or B.E.E., in a conversation with a close white friend about the South African job market.

South Africans are generally cool people. We’re a diverse bunch and (as the world now knows) we sometimes make kief musiek (we also sometimes don’t). Where we failed most epically in our history appears to be our institutionalized system of racial discrimination, a.k.a the infamous Apartheid. Although we like to appear level-headed and generally passive, apartheid sure did a number on us. And after it was over we did probably the dumbest thing ever by playing house for over ten years pretending it was just a minor fire in the kitchen that we could easily put out with a Madiba-emblazoned extinguisher and a whole lot of denial.

We were wrong, and now little pockets of racial tension seem to flare up in us like zits on an otherwise unblemished landscape, exploding into enough mud-slinging confetti as to put Clearasil and Oxy out of business in one fell swoop. To avoid all this, we’re going to need to sit down and talk a little, and openly, about our issues. This article is the beginning of my attempt to do that.

A key feature of apartheid was a kind of magical brainwashing that made everyone believe in a racial hierarchy that somehow divided us all. The hierarchy started with Whites, filtered down to Indians, then Coloureds (people of mixed race in SA), and eventually landed squarely on the shoulders of Blacks everywhere. Post-apartheid, we’ve taken to adopting a different – and maybe more logical? – hierarchy; a social class system where the rich supersede the poor.

Unfortunately, due to the old race-based system that saw Black people get royally screwed out of viable education and a decent chance of earning a living, the classes tend to reflect the previous race groupings pretty well. There are more black people than white people, and by percentage, more of them remain uneducated, unqualified and/or struggling under the yoke of a developing economy that hasn’t presented them with as many job opportunities as there are qualified individuals. Not to mention the old racial profiling is so drilled into our heads that even people whose balls haven’t dropped yet have problems not equating blacks with being of some mystical “dumb” lower class than themselves.

B.E.E. is, in principle, designed to change the social landscape of South Africa for the better. After all, if we could get as many qualified, educated young black people into the jobs they studied for, we might be able to lift an entire race up from the doldrums that apartheid forced them into and give them a fighting chance to contribute to our nation’s future. And what could be bad about that, right? Black people working alongside white people, gaining experience and shaping the development of our country for decades to come. Perhaps, one day soon, we might even reach an age of equality where we no longer require an enforced policy such as B.E.E. to sustain the employment of qualified black students into major companies. We might even get some black businessmen in power who didn’t arrive from exile with their underused degrees and overused wives.

We can hope.

And this is by no means to argue that B.E.E. is working out this way. There’s little doubt in my mind that, somewhere out there, someone is using this policy of equality to enforce some form of reverse-racism. There will always be elements in society who believe in the tired notion of vengeance visited upon the “enemy”, and would use B.E.E. as an excuse to make the white man suffer the same way the black man did during apartheid. But in principle, that’s not what B.E.E. is about.
This possibility is, however, the sad counterargument to any suggestion that Black Empowerment might be a good thing for the country. Nearly every time that thought is even bandied about as a possibility, the reply I receive from the (self-inflicted) ignorant and the (going-in-circles) racist is that B.E.E. is a racist policy that “forces” companies to hire black people instead of white people. To this I ask, “So what?” And the response I’m met with is so often the morbidly ironic “It’s unfair to discriminate against people based on their race” or the tried & trusted “I didn’t do anything to the blacks, so why must I suffer for what my grandfather did?”, both of which completely miss the point of B.E.E. in favour of the demand for pariah status from people who have no reason to beg for it, nor any evidence to support their claims that they’re going to get swindled out of a job by some maniacal black guy with a degree.

Affirmative Action: This black gentleman was so overqualified he scored a job as both the US President AND Superman. Go, B.E.E.!

Another argument is that companies will be hiring black people from all walks of life to try and earn their B.E.E. status. For God’s sakes, it’s not like the government is saying that massive law firms should promote their black janitors to partner status on the double. It’s encouraging them, through a tax incentive, to hire somebody other than the typical single white male candidate they might usually consider. B.E.E. doesn’t even go so far as to point the finger of racism at any particular company. No one’s being accused of anything. You’re just being asked to consider the Economic Empowerment of an entire race that got screwed over for decades on end instead of automatically providing for one that got handouts during the same period. Think of it as a chance for everyone in the country to contribute, one job interview at a time, to the continued development of equality in our screwed-up society. That, to me, is much cooler than even the music we’ve made.

I’d love to live in a world where race doesn’t matter, where it’s funny and where everyone craps on the very thought of racial discrimination. I want nothing more than to live the dream where we succeed on our merits and live as equals. So far as I can see, at least in principle, Black Economic Empowerment is attempting to contribute to that dream. Maybe it won’t happen today, and maybe it won’t happen tomorrow, but perhaps I’ll live with the hope that my children might get to work in a world where they don’t have to be black, like me.

To be continued when I, inevitably, get a bunch of angry responses accusing me (and every black person ever) of being racist scum.

2 Responses to “Black, Like Me”
  1. Chipo says:

    A very interesting and fair summation of BEE in the current South African context (head nodding and chinstroking)

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