White-washed equality

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After the Red October campaign led by Steve Hofmeyr, The Sunday Times published three different views on the topic: by Hofmeyr himself, by Gillian Schutte and by Eusebius McKaiser.

Michael Fargher's blog “White-washed equality” was mentioned by Eusebius McKaiser. Naomi Meyer asked Michael about his views and about making sense of this country.

Hi Michael, after the Red October campaign led by Steve Hofmeyr, your striking blog was mentioned in The Sunday Times. Please tell our readers about yourself.

I came from a middle-class background in Johannesburg and was fortunate to be sent to one of the top private schools in Johannesburg. After that, I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town. I worked for a few years in finance before taking up the Rhodes Scholarship to study a masters in Economics for Development at Oxford University. I think my background in academia and the business world have given me the perspective to consider both the ethical imperative of redistribution and the practical difficulties in achieving it. Some of the responses to my article indicate that people are so hard-wired to protect their privilege, regardless of whose expense it comes at, that they struggle to differentiate. For example, I made an ethical case for the existence of race-based policies, and most responses claim the arguments don't hold because the implementation has not been perfect. Those are not responses to the arguments I made, but have to do with particular aspects of government policy.

I loved the opening paragraph of this blog: "If you lean just enough against the window of your business class seat to discomfort yourself, you can see the shanty towns as you come in to land at Cape Town International Airport. South Africa is unequal." Many of us know this, many don't care. But why is it a problem not to care?

That is an interesting question. It is difficult to say what individuals are and are not obligated to care for. That said, there are two reasons in particular to care. First, there are some particularly poor people in South Africa. One of our defining characteristics as human beings is that we can empathise with one another. It is your obligation as a human being to care about some sufficient level in the quality of life of other human beings. Second, the inequality in South Africa – and arguably more so the reasons for its continued existence – has a significant impact on the South African social, economic and political environment. So if you are someone that wants to contribute or commentate in those spheres, then it is essential to care. Furthermore, the effects deeply influence our society. If you are a teacher or a business owner, having a better understanding of the nature of inequality in South Africa will enable you to better deal with the problems inequality creates in your sphere of work. For example, a teacher can understand that maybe some students don't have parents who can help with homework. A business owner can recognise her own potential biases both in employment preferences and in business opportunities being overlooked.

From the same blog: "Being aware that inequality of outcomes limits our ability to ensure a society that strives for equality of opportunity, we may need to adopt policies that prima facie work against equality of opportunity." On a practical level: What policies do we need to adopt in this country?

On a practical level, it is very difficult. It can be argued that there have been some poor implementations of redistributive polices in the past. That does not negate the moral or societal justification for their existence. It means we need to debate more about how to practically deliver redistribution and perhaps spend less time debating whether it's morally justified or not. The more interesting answer to this question is to focus less on what government can do and more on what each of us as individuals can do. Some of the biggest barriers to equal opportunity come from small businesses and in our personal interactions rather than the corporate culture at large companies. So what needs to be done on a practical level is for each of us to acknowledge the prejudices we harbour and seek to compensate for them or correct them by engaging with other South Africans. Go and watch a soccer game. Invite your black neighbour for dinner. Spend time talking to average South Africans. Try taking public transport. Engage with your fellow South Africans. Take http://www.activateleadership.co.za, for example,. It's a great programme that tries to facilitate a network of leaders that cross divides and enable a better understanding of one another. They had 800 applications – but only five from white people. It's as if we are privately deciding to opt out of constructive engagement in South Africa.

What did you think of the Red October campaign led by Steve Hofmeyr?

I thought it highlights how out of touch some South Africans are with the realities faced by most South Africans. There have been many responses showing the factual and ideological flaws and nothing I can say would add much more to the debate.

After understanding all the inequalities in society and the fact that we whites have had access to old money, etc for generations: What next? It does happen in other countries, too, that certain people born in privileged families just happen to have better opportunities. How on earth can all South Africans move forward? Is it possible?

Yes, many other countries have their own difficulties they must overcome. A fact particularly relevant to South Africa is that being born white (not just white and wealthy) also grants better access to opportunity. For South Africa to move on, we all need to acknowledge this fact. And it is a fact. This call for a non-racial South Africa is naive. The legacy of the past will continue to play out along racial lines even if we close our eyes and pretend that is not the case. And I don't understand why it is such a big deal for white South Africans to acknowledge this. I started grade 1 in 1994 and certainly wasn't an active part of apartheid. I don't feel guilty for apartheid and I don't feel responsible, but I can still acknowledge that I am privileged as a result of apartheid, and my peers should do the same. And yes, if you were a supporter, active or passive, of the status quo pre-1994, then you should feel regret and shame and should most certainly acknowledge your privilege. Germany has built many memorials to acknowledge the atrocities committed under Nazi Germany and it is a source of great national embarrassment. I don't see Red October-style campaigns to have a memorial to the lives that were ruined by apartheid. I don't see embarrassment and regret. Instead, I see article after article, and comment after comment claiming – incorrectly – that the old government was better. People who believe that should look at the history of our economic growth, compare how many citizens were provided for pre- and post-1994 and finally check their sanity. So once we acknowledge our white privilege we can seek ways in which best to redress that injustice while maximising economic growth and basic service provision. That will make South Africa better. We – as individuals, businesses and government – can then seek to create ways in which our society can bridge the geographic, economic and cultural divides that have been built along racial lines. And as we do that, South Africa can heal and move on. To think we can say "The past is the past; let's forget it and move on" is naive.



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    Charl le Roux

    There is a huge difference between a logical argument and an unsubstantiated assertion.  Should Mr. Fargher be unaware of the distinction: a logical argument consists of a concluding statement substantiated by supporting statements.  Consider the following statement:  “A fact particularly relevant to South Africa is that being born white (not just white and wealthy) also grants better access to opportunity. For South Africa to move on, we all need to acknowledge this fact. And it is a fact.”  Surely, Mr. Fargher, you must recognize this as an unsubstantiated assertion?  It effectively invalidates your entire epistle.



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    During apartheid, South African Blacks enjoyed the highest standard of living compared against all other blacks living in any commonwealth country anywhere in the world and in Africa. Furthermore, poverty never divides along breed, creed or religion anywhere in the world - the same applies for whites in poverty during apartheid in South Africa. If you were not a member of the NGK or had no contact with any of the white elite, you had less a chance than somebody like Nelson Mandela to become an attorney in apartheid South Africa. Mr. Farghers' opinion is therefore nothing more than that by a brainwashed-never-mind-white-washed liberal making popular sweeping statement which serves the power of to-day. It is therefore worthless to mention any further historical fact in reply to the nonsense regarding his arguments. If any other might be interested, I am more than willing to elaborate on the FACTS regarding the implicit benefits to ALL its citizens and the chronological founding of apartheid/segregation by the British in South Africa. If whites in South Africa must be slandered by apartheid, why not shame the British Crown in our day for the war crimes against the Boer women and children during the Boer war - not even to mention its monstrosities against the blacks in our history?

  • I read the above interview, as well as his blog.

    What especially impressed me is that the thinking expounded by Mr. Fargher, is that of a young man in his mid twenties, who has obviously researched his subject thoroughly.

    He has added new dimension to the topic of "equal opportunity", giving much food for thought to the idea that "equal opportunity" is not as important as is "equal outcomes", a new concept for me.

    Setting aside my own personal prejudices (and I admit to many), and looking at "equal outcomes" purely academically, then he has a positive point to be further researched.

    Jaco Fourie

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