A South African “culture of entitlement”?

Stephen Grootes has a column titled “Analysis: A culture of entitlement that holds us back” in the Daily Maverick (disclosure: as many of you will recall, I used to write for them), and it’s causing some discontent on social media and in comments to the column. The discontent is due to the fact that Grootes is interpreted as “pathologising poverty”, and of perpetuating stereotypes regarding “lazy blacks”, waiting for handouts instead of getting on with things. Essentially, Grootes is being accused of expressing racist sentiments at worst, or of oversimplification at best.

The charge of racism isn’t explicit (at the time of writing this), but I’ve little doubt that it will come. Grootes has, at least, been accused of “enabling” racism in that he is thought to be providing a narrative that allows for dismissing poor people as simply lazy, rather than being victims of generations of oppression, that still compromise their prospects today.

My concern is this: both explanations could have merit, and both could be partially true, but only one of the two can be discussed openly without charges of racism or ill-intent being levelled at the author. In short, the concern Grootes was trying to address might be a forbidden topic – especially if broached by a white author.

But that simple analysis makes critical writing about race, poverty or politics in South Africa prohibitively difficult, in that most topics of conversation are going to be “about” black South Africans – that demographic is, after all, 79.2% of the population. Some (like Samantha Vice) would argue that white folk like myself (and Grootes) should accept our lack of credentials, an simply butt out of conversations like these entirely – but as I’ve argued before, that form of identity politics is unduly restrictive, infantilising both ourselves, and our conversations.

Instead, we need to address the arguments, rather than the utterer of those arguments. Of course black South Africans – easily identifiably as having been, and currently still (some will disagree with the “still”, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever that past privilege ripples into the future) relatively less able to secure loans, jobs, or access to universities – are going to have their potential artificially suppressed in ways that the (typical) white South African won’t. But it’s a separate issue as to whether there’s an additional problem – namely the “culture of entitlement” that Grootes speaks of.

Grootes is addressing the second issue, not the first. Yet, a racist reading of his column tends towards interpreting him as denying the first issue – in other words, playing into the hands of racists by implying that it’s simply because people are black that they are lazy, under performing, etc.

Of course poor people in this country will – by and large – happen to be black, simply because of the population demographics. But they – and others – might also risk falling prey to some grand narrative, including around entitlement. It’s happened before, with the “Rainbow Nation”, and can happen again – and a white man, no matter how privileged he might be – is allowed to talk about this as much as anyone else.

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.