Attention, white people in South Africa!

The dulcet tones of Steve Hofmeyr seem to have convinced some of you that there is some sort of impending genocide, and that it’s going to be played out using airline pilots and “cashiers of colour” at Woolworths (that’s your preferred polite phrasing, isn’t it?). And in the pressure-chamber of the shouting we love to do in each others’ general direction, especially on the Internet, Woolworths and SAA are now “racist” for trying to give previously disadvantaged folk a head start in the employment queue.

But my previous sentence contained a falsity, in that we’re not talking about “previously disadvantaged” people at all. We’re talking about currently disadvantaged people, in that it will take more than just a generation of people being able to vote to result in equality of a substantive sort – the sort that gives you the same sort of choices as someone who grew up, and whose grandparents grew up, on top of the social heap. I’ll say more about this in next week’s Daily Maverick column.

Here, just a short note to say that much of the opposition to affirmative action rests on a false dichotomy. It is of course wrong to ‘blame’ white people (except for some, of course – I’m happy to blame PW Botha, FW de Klerk, etc.) for continuing inequality premised on race. It’s wrong to set out to make white folk, in general, ashamed of being white. But those are very different to recognising that there are still significant inherent privileges to being white, and (as a white person) not getting defensive when those are pointed out. In other words, it’s not as simple as option A) everything is equal and hunky-dory or B) we have reverse-racism. We do have racial discrimination, yes, any many people (including many whites, like me) think it entirely justified.

At some point it will (hopefully) no longer be justified, and it’s certainly a worry that politicians won’t have the courage to recognise when that point arrives. But we’re not there yet. And yes, it should be legitimate to ask questions about how we are going about the process of trying to get to socio-economic equality. We can debate the manner in which affirmative action is implemented (class versus race, for example), and we can debate sunset clauses. But when we do so, it can’t be in the self-righteous and indignant tones of someone who denies that your position on the social and economic heap is still strongly correlated with the arbitrary characteristic of your skin colour. When you speak like that, denying this reality, you sound like a racist – and you probably are one, whether or not you know it.

(And by the way, that’s not clever.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.