Van Wyksdorp, South Africa – As South Africa erupted into chaos, my thoughts turned to the United States — a great country brought low by the same toxic and demented racial politics that set afire my homeland last week.
As I write, shell-shocked South Africans are trying to muster a response to an orgy of arson and looting. Cargo vessels are being turned away from some of our largest harbors, because it’s too dangerous to unload them. Hundreds of thousands face hunger thanks to the destruction of warehouses and disruption of food-supply chains. Tens of thousands of jobs and small businesses have been destroyed; the property damage is incalculable.
Former President Jacob Zuma’s refusal to be held accountable for corruption triggered this mayhem. Rather than face the prospect of imprisonment and disgrace, he seems to have attempted a preemptive coup against his successor.
But this is just part of the picture. The overarching truth is that an idea pushed South Africa to the brink. You guys know this idea, because it animates the sermons of critical race theorists trying to force you to take the knee and atone for your supposed sins. I am going to call it the Beautiful Idea, because it is beautiful in a way — but also dangerous.
The Beautiful Idea holds that all humans are born with identical gifts and should turn out to be clones of one another in a just society. Conversely, any situation in which disparity survives is in itself proof of injustice. This is the line promoted by CRT pundit Ibram X. Kendi, who blames all racial disparities on racist policies.
But what policies is he talking about? Kendi is reluctant to be drawn on this score, and with good reason: He can’t name the policies, because they don’t exist anymore. In your country, all discriminatory laws have been repealed, all forms of overt racism outlawed and replaced by laws that enforce preferential black access to jobs, housing and college admissions.
So Kendi must insist that an invisible miasma of “systemic racism” infects white people and propels them to act in ways so subtly racist that most of them aren’t even aware they’re sick until it is pointed out to them by diversity consultants.
Once upon a time, South African revolutionaries would have laughed at this sort of thing. Until the mid-1980s, the aims of our freedom struggle were the eradication of capitalism and the creation of a classless society where equity would be enforced at gunpoint by commissars. But the Soviet Union collapsed just as the African National Congress started its rise to power, forcing our new leaders to embrace economic policies of the neoliberal variety.
This didn’t set well with the hard left, which openly reviled President Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) as a sellout. To mollify them, Mbeki set about building a black middle and upper class that would reap the fruits of neoliberalism and thank him for it.
The object of this new game was not to destroy capitalism, but to force it to open its doors to aspirant blacks. Starting in l999, Mbeki’s government enacted a phalanx of American-sounding laws intended to eradicate racial disparities of the sort that exercise Kendi. The old revolutionary songs were dusted off at rallies, but somewhere along the line, the Beautiful Idea replaced socialism as our ideological lodestar.
At the turn of the new millennium, Mbeki let it be known that he was displeased by the national rugby team’s slow progress towards full racial representation. Athletic failure, he suggested, was preferable to lack of full representation. Equity before victory.
At least initially, Mbeki’s scheme worked fairly well. Some blacks became billionaires. Many others joined the white suburban elite and sent their kids to private schools. Transformation of the civil service spurred the growth of a new black middle class, generally commanding salaries far higher than in the private economy.
But in the longer term, the economic consequences were devastating. In addition to paying taxes at Scandinavian levels, South African corporations were required to cede large ownership stakes to black partners, whether or not they brought anything to the table besides black skin and connections in high places
Firms were also required to meet racial quotas in hiring and ensure that management was racially representative, meaning roughly 88 percent black. Tendering for government business became increasingly pointless, because contracts were invariably awarded to black-owned firms, even if their prices were double, triple or tenfold.
Investment dried up. Brains drained. The economy stagnated, causing unemployment to surge to 11.4 million today, from 3.3 million in l994. The upshot: utter misery for the underclass, doomed to sit in tin shacks, half-starved, watching the black elite grow fat on the pickings of equity laws and rampant corruption.
This was an especially bitter experience for young black people, 63 percent of whom are now jobless, too broke even for booze and drugs to dull the pain. Last week, it proved easy for Zuma and his acolytes to tempt them onto the streets with the promise of loot.
And so we come to the moral of this story. It’s a warning about the practical consequences of ideas like those propounded by Kendi and CRT superstar Robin DiAngelo, who in the name of “equity” maintains it is racist to talk of work ethic or to expect all workers to show up on time, regardless of race.
It is exactly these values that have brought South Africa to its knees. We created a society where nothing was expected of blacks save “blackness.” Honor and diligence were not demanded of government appointees. Sloth was tolerated. Failures and corruption went unpunished. Blind pursuit of equity began to achieve its opposite: a staggering equality gap among blacks themselves, with a fortunate few benefitting hugely and the masses sinking into abject misery.
Most black South Africans recognize this. By 2021, only 3 percent of them cited racism as a serious problem, according to a survey by the Institute of Race Relations. The same survey found that 83 percent of black South Africans were in full or partial agreement with the following statement: “Politicians are talking about racism to excuse their own failures.”
Which brings us to the slender silver lining in this dark story. Many black South Africans who oppose this lawlessness were out in force last week, manning roadblocks to keep the mobs away from their homes and businesses.
I can hear their voices on the radio, clamoring for change. By the sound of it, they want a country where human outcomes are determined by the content of one’s character, not by pigmentation or friends in the ruling party. Martin Luther King would appreciate their message. Kendi & Co. wouldn’t.
Rian Malan is the author of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and the worldwide bestseller “My Traitor’s Heart.”
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