The foundation of the Bruin Bemagtiging Beweging (BBB - Brown Empowerment Movement) is the outcome of developments within the coloured community and within South African society as a whole. These developments amount to the failure of black nationalism and the related re-emergence of ethnic based politics, one hundred years after the ANC was established as a means to move beyond such politics. Of course, ethnic politics cannot be wrong in principle; it is fully justified as a response against discrimination and oppression affecting people simply because they are members of a particular ethnic group. It is precisely on this claim - that coloured people are discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity - that the BBB bases its politics, and I want to suggest that a response to the movement must start with an examination of this claim.
An examination of the central claim of the BBB will not only show that it is false in the sense that coloured people are not oppressed as an ethnic group; it will also show that the main problems of coloured people stem not from ethnic discrimination against them, but from the continuation of institutionalised racism. This institutionalised racism, which the end of Apartheid was supposed to signal the end of, not only persists, but it is growing worse in important ways. Its continuity with Apartheid resides not only in the fact that it oppresses all black people, including the coloured people, but also in that it spares its worst effects for African people, including middle class Africans relative to other middle class people. Of course this immediately raises the question of how this could be, as since 1994 we have had the ANC in power - an organisation that started as the recognised national voice of the African middle class and came to adopt a stance of black nationalism sympathetic to socialism coupled with a vision of non-racialism.
Danny Titus, BBB conference chair, explains as follows what is for them 'the issue at hand':
'we (decided to) focus on the matter of the Correctional Services members who felt discriminated against as their being coloured was now the barrier in promotions and appointments. This was very simply that the Department was applying national demographics instead of provincial ones in their employment practices. It was following closely the discredited approach of Jimmy Manyi who argued that there were too many coloured people in the Western Cape. Coloured people in the Western Cape will have to be moved to other provinces to balance the racial employment equity scorecards. The 52% of Coloured people in the Western Cape must now be shrunk by these policies to 9% that Coloured people constitutes nationally.
The (BBB founding) meeting felt that this was broader than just one department as it affects whole communities. It resolved that the BBB be established as a civil society initiative to address the marginalisation of coloured people.'
The grievances of the Correctional Services members have now become the subject of a court case where the correctional officers are asking the court to rule that they must get the promotions that were denied to them and that the department must set aside its policy of basing employment equity targets on national demographics. My view is that they will win the case, based on both the law and the prevailing tendency within our judiciary. If they do not win the legal case, they are likely to win politically, as the department could not even secure the support of the provincial ANC, who condemned the department's policy either out of principle or because they are aware of how much the policy could potentially hurt their chances in the coming elections.
For the purpose of this article I want to leave aside the issue of what a good affirmative action policy would be and also whether the DCS and the ANC are doing good jobs of implementing affirmative action, except to say that despite the likely outcome of the court case and political engagement, an affirmative action policy favouring Africans over coloureds to achieve equity in the Western Cape is fully justified, simply because of the extra burden of racist discrimination carried by Africans in the province during Apartheid. That said, the flaming question is whether a victory on the part of the coloured DCS officers and their supporters would mean that coloured people are marginalised, as Danny Titus is saying.
The people known as coloured have suffered every imaginable injustice. Genocide, slavery, displacement across oceans, denigration, the suppression and near obliteration of language and beliefs, forced removals, the carrying of passes, mass imprisonment, discrimination, repression, impoverishment and endless violence. To the extent that the transition of 1994 promised an end to this historic injustice, the brightness of the promise just made the disappointment that followed all the more cruel. Because, make no mistake, for coloured people, or at least for the vast majority of them, the situation post-1994 is a continuation of their position as oppressed, discriminated-against people. In economic terms they are worse off, and politically and socially they might be better off in some ways, but by no means enough to end their oppression. However, in all of this, both in the disastrous oppression and in the cruel betrayal, coloured people suffered not as an ethnic group, but as members of the black race. The oppression, discrimination and violence that crushed their bodies, stultified their minds and twisted their spirits, were the common lot of all black people, regardless of ethnic affiliation. If there was anything specific about the coloured experience of this racism, then it was found in the coloured labour preference policies of the twentieth century in the Cape that was coupled with an exemption from some laws such as the pass laws, and by a bigger per capita state expenditure, compared to Africans, on social services such as housing and education, which led to coloured people on average being economically and socially less miserable than Africans. In other words, for a specific period a significant number of coloured people were able to avoid the worst effects of the racism that oppressed them together with all other black people.
The fact that racism is the common enemy of coloureds and Africans may be more obviously true about the Apartheid and colonialist past than it is about today, but it remains as true today as ever before. The employment equity situation - rather than showing the ethnic marginalisation of coloureds - is one of the (maybe less important) manifestations of this continued structural racism. Coloured people are massively underrepresented in top and senior management level positions in the private and public sectors in all provinces. But this shows racism, not ethnic marginalisation, for the simple fact that all black people are underrepresented, and Africans more so than any other group. In the private sector particular, coloureds and Indians have benefit far more from employment equity policies than Africans. I wonder if the BBB will now be principled and argue that in other provinces, provincial demographics must also be used and therefore coloured managers in Gauteng must benefit less than Africans from now on. Anyway, the beneficiaries of the underrepresentation of coloureds in top and senior management have not been Africans; it is whites, as it always has been! And of course whites benefit from the underrepresentation of all black people, and most of all from the marginalisation of Africans (See the 12th Commission for Employment Equity Report, Department of Labour). More important than who gets the top and senior posts is who gets decent housing, nutritious food, arable land and quality jobs. If we use these as measuring rods the situation of structural racism becomes even starker, with black people facing a veritable and worsening crisis.
Two questions now arise. Why does this structural racism persist under an ANC government and a constitutional democracy? And what is the meaning of the choice of the BBB to focus on the Department of Correctional Services? There is a large body of writing such as Sampie Terreblanche's A history of inequality in South Africa that has answered the first question as follows: The ANC's decision to adopt neo-liberal capitalism neutralised its ability to address structural racism as capitalism and racism are tightly intertwined in South Africa. By protecting white wealth the ANC is protecting the reproduction of white privilege resting on black deprivation, which is the essence of structural racism. Any serious attempt to abolish racial inequality will require redistribution of wealth that will threaten the continued operation of capitalism.
It is this failure of black nationalism, of which the ANC is the main custodian, to address structural racism that has led to the reinvigoration of ethnic based politics. As before ethnic politics aligns with racism in South Africa. The DCS situation is a stark exception to the rule of white overrepresentation and black underrepresentation in general. If the BBB were really serious about coloured underrepresentation in top and senior management they would have seen that the problem is white privilege and the continued protection it receives from the government and the law, to which the solution can only be black resistance and unity against white privilege and wealth and the state that protects it. There are oppressed ethnic groups all over the world, and they tend to face a similar set of problems that include the following:
· They are denied full citizenship
· Their language is denigrated and marginalised
· Their movements are restricted
· They are at the bottom of society in terms of wealth and welfare indicators
· They are targeted for forced relocations
· They are the targets of police and state violence
· They are the targets of vigilante violence and 'pogroms' (officially non-state violence targeting a specific ethnic group)
· They are the targets of stereotypes that portray them as stupid and evil.
The BBB raises none of these problems as part of their motivation, although included in this incomplete list are problems causing immense suffering for coloured people, compared to which the frustrated ambitions of a few jailers cannot even begin to compare. Why do they not? Because obviously insofar as coloured people suffer these problems, they suffer like all other black people, with Africans generally the worst off. Surely it is reasonable to suspect the BBB as being less about the problems facing most coloured people and more about an anti-black agenda; they are choosing to focus on a particular situation in the DCS that does not reflect the general situation around employment equity at all, but that does lend itself to an anti-black agenda. From this perspective their alliance with the white dominated, conservative Solidarity union makes complete sense. As does Titus talking about a fictional plan of Jimmy Manyi to forcibly relocate millions of coloured people, instead of focusing on the real problems such as housing and criminal violence that faces a community in crisis. For coloured people in general though, the challenge remains to build black unity against structural racism and its institutional manifestations and allies - unemployment, inferior housing and education, landlessness, capitalism, the state and the ANC.