Saturday, December 5, 2009

This is my land

The South African government has made great efforts to eradicate all the lasting effects of the horrific apartheid regime. A seemingly impossible task it is incredible that at no time has the country descended into a pit of race-related violence. The government has embarked on a program of affirmative action in the belief that to continually treat unequals as equals is to perpetuate their inequality. The global argument in favour of affirmative action is that the disproportionate representations are the result of institutionalised and involuntary forms of discrimination that permeate the society. This is particularly true in societies that have had a long history of racial, ethnic, or sex based discrimination, such as South Africa.

There is a strong argument against affirmative action however, that it devalues the accomplishments of people who are chosen because of their background and not because of their qualifications. Some people also feel that affirmative action is discrimination in itself since it judges on ethnicity albeit in a positive way. It is also claimed that affirmative action in the form of positive discrimination, also called reverse discrimination, has negative side effects in the community by promoting racial disharmony and hindering reconciliation efforts and undermining the self-esteem of individuals, even encouraging them to identify themselves as disadvantaged. Whilst it can be argued that none of these factors ever concerned the apartheid goverment the old adage 'two wrongs do not make a right' should also be noted.

The methods the government has introduced to bring equality into society include such measures as positive discrimination in employment laws, the appointment of government officials and members of parliament, in admission levels at educational institutions and quota-based selection policies regarding national sport representatives. In addition the government has also introduced a very strong income-based payment system with regard to services such as electricity and water, often referred to by the media as 'wealth taxes', referred to as 'white taxes' by many disgruntled white South Africans.

Many of the new laws do not only promote positive discrimination towards black South Africans but also specifically disadvantage the other citizens. The new laws favour black-owned companies and also state that 80% of new jobs should be reserved for black South Africans. In the context of these laws the term 'black' includes all people of “colour" including Cape Malays, rural tribe members and those of Indian and Chinese origin. In the complex, quota-based system firms are required to meet specific levels not only of the workforce as a whole but also in how their company is represented at board and management levels, which other companies they deal with and how their company behaves in the local community.

Some of the laws have been very unsuccessful, how many South Africans, regardless of their racial background, would rather see a sports team that meets the quotas rather than one which is going to bring pride to their country. Personally I disagree with these laws also. What the government should do is put more emphasis on the development of these sports at grass-root level, to ensure that in coming generations the selections will be racially balanced naturally. Again, it also cuts both ways - the players and fans of cricket and rugby may be predominantly white but regarding football the players and fans are overwhelmingly from the black community, in fact there is only one white player in the South African national football team, whose name, Bafana Bafana, is a Zulu word meaning 'boys'. This also creates strong opinions however, people complain that white South Africans refuse to follow football on racial grounds and that many are hoping that the World Cup 2010 will fail. Personally I do not believe this for a second, imagine the economic impact should the tournament fail which would affect all South Africans. Some members of the press argue that white South Africans are discouraged from attending football matches due to the threat of crime and violence, this is partly true, although I would insert the word 'perceived' before threat, or even 'paranoia' instead of 'threat'! The fact that the standard of football played in the South African league is perhaps also a factor - why should people waste their money to attend the games when they could attend good quality rugby or cricket matches and then watch the top European football leagues on TV? The lack of quality spills over into the national team as well whose last ten games have yielded just two draws amongst eight losses!

Another part of the governments actions is the concept of land claims. Since 1994 the South African government has pursued a policy of trying to return land to its rightful owners after it had been taken from them during apartheid. This is a noble and justified project but has had some very unsuccessful and undesirable results. Many of the disputed lands have been operating as successful farms for many years, providing essential employment to the region as well as producing food to supply both the local community and beyond. When a group produces a valid claim to the land they may be offered cash or other land as an alternative or the government will enter negotiations with the present owners to come to a fair remuneration package. Often in these cases, after years of high production levels the farms will crumble within months of the change in ownership - fields will go fallow, the boreholes will dry up and the members of the community will sell off as much as they can before moving on to another settlement. In one particular case a farm showing an annual profit of 7m rand was given away in a land claim to a group that had already received compensation in lieu of the land and should not have been eligible for any more claims, a fact the judge overlooked. Within months there were just 6 people remaining on the farm from the hundreds that moved in, the machinery had all been sold, the buildings dismantled and the farmland destroyed. The real crux of this matter is that ALL South Africans complain as they suffer from less food being available leading to higher prices and even having to import such products as oranges from abroad.

Subjects such as these have done my head in during our couple of months in and around South Africa. It is a challenging country for liberal, open-minded travellers! I am in total support of the ANC's vision but it always seems that there is too much emphasis on making the country appear more equal rather than concentrating on actually promoting equality. Of course the second factor is far more difficult to achieve but surely its the only viable option? Questions such as ‘Why is the crime rate so high?, Why is there so much disharmony?, Why are the people much less friendly and welcoming than in neighbouring Lesotho, Swaziland or Mozambique?’ create forceful discussions in hostels around the country. Where do you draw the line in these efforts? When does common sense prevail?

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