When Race Trumps Merit

by Hannes Wessels

On the surface, if one surveys the societal landscape of South Africa, one would probably be correct in concluding that, from a racial point of view, the country is now more polarised than ever. This is deeply regrettable, particularly at a time when division almost certainly spells doom and unity provides the best platform for recovery.

However, as a white African who has lived his entire life on this continent, I think this disturbing picture may be somewhat illusory. Support for this view comes immediately to mind from the rugby field where we were recently witness to South Africans of all ethnicities, religions and races coming together so spontaneously and fervently to support and celebrate the Springbok victory at the World Cup. It seems racial animus dissipated in the face of success. Underlining this groundswell of unity was the fact that the populace at large were convinced that the group they were supporting was the best team South Africa could muster; the captain was the best man to lead them on field and the coach was the best man to manage the process. Very few blacks, apart from meddlesome politicians, were troubled by the fact that Rassie Erasmus was white and very few whites resented the fact that Siya Kolisi was black. All believed selection on merit had trumped race and the country rejoiced.

Throughout my life, in every endeavour I have ever been associated with, whether at work or at play, I have interacted pleasurably and successfully at all levels with black people and so have all my white compatriots. All of us have encountered black people of exceptional quality at all levels and celebrated it. In almost every situation we have found ways to minimise our differences and amplify our commonality by understanding our mutual limitations, accepting them, and progressing with relationships bolstered by respect for one another. With these basic fundamentals in place, relationships flourish and so does success in the workplace. Without them, failure inevitably follows .

A fine example of this, on a larger scale, lies in the true story of the development of Rhodesia, rather than the jaundiced one presented by a dishonest media and it is in fact, an excellent example of highly effective and productive inter-racial endeavour.

The unprecedented speed with which the country was constructed would have been impossible without the vast pool of skilled black labour and expertise that was needed to overcome the complex challenges that needed to be addressed.  The whites provided the capital, vision and the cohesion but most of the work was done by blacks who learned fast and soon became adept at handling difficult tasks. Engineers on the roads that were built, marveled at the incredible skills of the grader-drivers and heavy equipment operators who contributed the enormous energy and commitment that brought some of these tasks to fruition in record time.

Few know it, but in the building of the bridge over the Zambezi at Chirundu, (which was funded in part by that other nasty capitalist, Alfred Beit,) the engineers in charge had to entice skilled black artisans from the mines to the north and south who then held higher positions than many of the whites who did not have the credentials to rise above positions as general labourers.

The story of the white-owned farms in Zimbabwe is a more recent example of inter-racial success. While many believe success came easy to these farmers because they owned all ‘the best land’ (absolute rubbish), that’s very far from the truth. The fact is, many white farmers failed on the land, prior to the invasions, because they did not manage to establish the synergy across the racial divide required for success leading to disgruntlement, apathy and low productivity. But, most succeeded in doing this and they developed highly productive inter-racial relationships that led to the rise of blacks throughout the commercial farming sector rising to well rewarded management positions and everyone involved on these farms improving the quality of their lives.

With the arrival of Robert Mugabe, he, in time set about trying to destroy this fruitful and happy union with strident racially motivated invective and then with threats. But no matter what he said or did, the bonds that tied white and black to one another, were too strong and he failed. He was well aware of his own failures and of the government he led, and he was incensed by being daily witness to a multi-racial success story that provided such vibrant and obvious proof that his racist diatribes were misplaced and untrue. The farmers’ success and his gross incompetence was too much for him to bear and he had to be rid of a very obvious and embarrassing divergence. He saw the greatest threat to his regime in the strong political and community bonds that developed between the white farmers and the moderate black middle-class. When all other efforts had failed, he sent in his murderous mobs and destroyed them.

In many ways, a similar history and current situation pertains today in South Africa, not only on the farms but right across a private sector that continues to drive the country forward and offers hope. But the future is gloomy.

Unfortunately, all hope seems to disappear at the political level, which follows the Zimbabwe model of race-based selection of people and an utterly contemptuous approach to the importance of a person’s qualifications, acumen and ability to perform, with patronage and party loyalty being the order of the day. This leaves the country with a bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy, led by incompetent politicians which is bankrupting the country simply because it is racist in its composition and merit is inconsequential.

In the face of real prospects of the country imploding, we can expect no real change, because the culprits are unaccountable thanks in no small part, to a political system which itself has no regard for merit in meeting the qualification to vote. Those who once called for a qualified franchise as a means to electing more capable and effective politicians were drummed out of office a long time ago. Unfortunately, they are being proven right and we will all suffer the ugly consequences.

The moral of the story is success is inevitable when selection is based on merit and failure is certain when based on race. What a pity, Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi can’t bring their magic to the political arena.









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