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Thu Dec 08 18:04:04 CAT 2016

The Big Read: I'm white: So what exactly is my role?

Gerhard Papenfus | 2016-02-10 00:10:34.0
I cannot begin to imagine the humiliation, frustration and anger it causes. I not only see it, I also make myself guilty of it. My view of people, depending on the situation, is still influenced by images that are deeply entrenched. File photo
Image by: WALDO SWIEGERS

I'm white. I have no mandate to write this, no political constituency. The views I express herein are influenced by my prejudice, to what extent I don't know.

I find it difficult to make sense of a rapidly changing South African landscape.

I am a South African in heart and soul. There is no place in the world where I would rather be. I want to play my part in bringing about a future for all South Africans.

I must admit that I do not fully understand the harm that apartheid has done to South Africans who found themselves on the wrong side of that evil ideology. The behaviour which is the result of this mindless ideology has been imprinted on the minds of people for many generations.

I cannot begin to imagine the humiliation, frustration and anger it causes. I not only see it, I also make myself guilty of it. My view of people, depending on the situation, is still influenced by images that are deeply entrenched.

Apartheid was a failure. The material wealth and twisted security it aimed to guarantee were disappointing. Its coming to a formal end 21 years ago was a relief. Those who now strive for the benefits that apartheid strove to achieve will eventually experience the same disappointment.

I can see what's happening around me. I see the spectacular growth of individual wealth in a contracting economy. I see declining wealth. I see the increasing gap between rich and poor, growing unemployment, growing social discontent, failing service delivery - all of which affect the poor the most.

I see neglect of the issues that could bring lasting empowerment and a focus on issues that can bring no lasting benefit but are bringing about dangerous short-term, unrealistic political enthusiasms.

But I also see so many things that work; I see the most wonderful goodwill among ordinary people. I still hope.

I am continuously made to understand that it is expected of me to make a greater contribution; that my resistance to change is a cause of the growing tension.

I wish that "transformation" meant better education, improved skills, improved work ethics, changed attitudes, more mutual understanding and the creation of an enabling environment. But what it means, unfortunately, is redistribution in a wide range of areas, including the shares in my business, my job. If only transformation were that simple and that by giving things away a lasting solution would be created. All indications are that these policies have the opposite effect.

I get the impression that, when open debate on these issues is invited, what is meant is that I, branded as the perpetrator, must sit back and listen while the victim explains my historical sins to me. Is it that simple? It is expected that I subject myself to historical reorientation, then adapt my behaviour and agree to permanent economic suffocation - not only for myself but for the generations after me.

Those who want to treat me as the perpetrator, do they realise that, at some stage, I might have become the victim. And do the victims of today realise that they are turning themselves into perpetrators.

The current system of affirmative action is as ugly and dysfunctional as its predecessor, apartheid. If you find yourself caught in the wrong skin you are subjected to a legal framework aimed at keeping you out of the mainstream economy for ever. This is economic genocide.

The whole model is a breeding ground for racism.

Employment equity and black economic empowerment have turned out to be a form of punishment for whites. It has nothing to do with broadly based empowerment. It has enriched some blacks, and impoverished many whites and millions of blacks. It is a major cause of racial tension, the cancer of the economy - and the topic everybody refuses to talk about out for fear of retribution.

The race I am part of is inseparable from this nation. If we are marginalised, the body will suffer. That applies to every individual and every group of people in South Africa.

My "sins of the past" do not disqualify me from playing my full part in unfolding events. Withdrawing from the debate out of fear, guilt or self-pity, will be of no benefit, least of all to those who want to push me to the periphery.

Real wealth which brings lasting fulfilment was not achieved by apartheid, neither will it be by "empowerment" policies that seek wealth in the same depleted mine.

  • Papenfus is chief executive of the National Employers' Association of SA. He writes in his personal capacity

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