When this column appeared in another place, the two subjects most guaranteed to arouse reader fury were black economic empowerment and affirmative action. When I wrote that, moral issues apart, BEE was an essential sequel to the political revolution of 1994, and vital to whites’ long-term future in SA, I would be accused in effect of being a Commie K-lover who wanted to give the country away; when I wrote that affirmative action (I refuse to use the term employment equity, which is the precise reverse of reality) is a huge burden on the economy whose effects are totally negative, I would be accused of being a reactionary white racist.
As the two subjects were frequently discussed together, I would find myself being virulently attacked by both left and right for the same column.
That shouldn’t happen this time, as I’m only riding one of those hobbyhorses. To put it bluntly, and save the blindly prejudiced from having to read any further, let me say straight out that the appointment of Commission for Employment Equity chair Jimmy Manyi as DG of the Department of Labour is the worst single item of economic-related news since my near-neighbour Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency.
Up till now Zuma has made all the right noises on economic issues; we’ve been promised no major change in fiscal policy, fears that nationalisation will return to government policy have been allayed, and the career moves of Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel have been positively received. The proposed national health reforms are another matter, but their idiocy deserves a column to itself.
The Manyi appointment jeopardises all that. In what seems to have been his first public pronouncement, Manyi threatens to tighten the law and impose stiff penalties on non-compliant companies.
Proposed amendments to the law call for non-compliers to be fined 10% of their turnover and be excluded from lucrative public-sector tenders. State departments may be given the power to refuse to do business with or cancel a tender with such suppliers.
Manyi says that, “If all goes well, the new legislation will hit the labour market by June. In the meantime we will name and shame companies individually instead of naming them en masse.” So much for earlier hints that, 15 years after the political revolution, affirmative action might even be relaxed.
Now I have to say that when Manyi went out of his way to meet me at a presentation by his previous employer, Tiger Brands, he was friendly and non-confrontational, in spite of the trenchant criticisms I’d already levelled against him. But however personable he may be, this attitude is simply lunatic.
Moreover, it’s counterproductive. Appointing people to positions they’re not competent to fill, on account of their pigmentation, makes the economy less efficient, stifles economic growth, and therefore damages the primary underlying objective, of creating employment opportunities for the millions who are excluded from the labour market. To adapt an old saw, it’s worse than just immoral, it’s a mistake.
If Manyi gets his way, it won’t create employment opportunities, it will restrict them. Along the way, it will also encourage the outflow of young white professionals from the country – and who can blame them, if this sort of policy is to be adopted?
Of course, there may be those who are only too happy to see the white exodus gain momentum, but I wouldn’t impute such Machiavellian motives to Manyi. Still, it’s undeniable that the retreat from Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation has become one element of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency that won’t be reversed by the new regime.
On the contrary, the new racism, however much it tries to hide under the cloak of redressing past sins, is just as vicious as the old. The main difference is that it’s directed at a minority, instead of the majority. If anything, that makes it even less defensible.
Michael Coulson is a former deputy editor of Financial Mail, and a widely respected financial commentator on investment and business matters. Michael’s Broadstrokes column is a sharp commentary on wide-ranging corporate matters.