Van Wyksdorp, South Africa – When South Africa erupted into chaos, my mind turned to the United States – a great country crushed by the same venomous and insane racial policies that set my homeland on fire last week.
As I write, South Africans are in shock trying to answer an orgy of arson and looting. Cargo ships are turned away from some of our largest ports because they are too dangerous to unload. Hundreds of thousands are starving from the destruction of warehouses and the disruption of food supply chains. Tens of thousands of jobs and small businesses were destroyed; the property damage is incalculable.
This chaos was triggered by former President Jacob Zuma’s refusal to be held accountable for corruption. Instead of facing the prospect of jail and shame, he appears to have attempted a preventive coup against his successor.
But that’s only part of the picture. The overarching truth is that one idea has marginalized South Africa. You know this idea because it animates the sermons of critical racial theorists who try to force you to kneel down and atone for your supposed sins. I’m going to call it the beautiful idea because in some ways it is beautiful – but also dangerous.
The Beautiful Idea is that all human beings are born with identical gifts and should prove to be clones of one another in a just society. Conversely, any situation in which inequality survives is evidence of injustice. This is the line advocated by CRT expert Ibram X. Kendi, who attributes all racial differences to racist politics.
But what politics is he talking about? Kendi is reluctant to withdraw from that, and for good reason: he cannot name the policies because they no longer exist. In your country, all discriminatory laws have been repealed, all forms of overt racism have been banned and replaced by laws enforcing preferential access for blacks to jobs, homes and university admissions.
So Kendi has to insist that an invisible miasm of “systemic racism” infects white people and causes them to be so subtly racist that most of them don’t even know they are sick until told by diversity advisors be advised.
In the past, South African revolutionaries would have laughed at something like that. Until the mid-1980s, the goals of our freedom struggle were to eradicate capitalism and create a classless society in which the commissioners would enforce justice at gunpoint. But the Soviet Union collapsed when the African National Congress began its rise to power, forcing our new leaders to pursue economic policies of the neoliberal variety.
That was not well received by the hard left, which President Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) openly denounced as a sell-out. To appease them, Mbeki set about building a black middle and upper class that would reap the fruits of neoliberalism and thank it for it.
The aim of this new game was not to destroy capitalism but to force it to open its doors to aspiring blacks. Beginning in 1999, Mbeki’s government enacted a phalanx of American-sounding laws aimed at eradicating racial differences such as those practiced by kendi. The old revolutionary songs were dusted off at rallies, but at some point the beautiful idea replaced socialism as our ideological guiding star.
Around the turn of the millennium, Mbeki announced that he was dissatisfied with the national rugby team’s slow progress towards full racial representation. Failure in sport, he suggested, was preferable to lack of full representation. Justice before victory.
At least initially, Mbeki’s scheme worked pretty well. Some blacks became billionaires. Many others joined the white suburban elite and sent their children to private schools. The transformation of the public service spurred the growth of a new black middle class, who generally received far higher salaries than the private sector.
But in the longer term the economic consequences were devastating. In addition to paying taxes at the Scandinavian level, South African companies had to cede large stakes to black partners, regardless of whether they brought anything to the table besides black skin and connections to high positions
Companies also had to adhere to racist quotas when hiring and ensure management was racially representative, which meant about 88 percent black. Tenders for government business became increasingly pointless, as contracts were always given to black companies, even if their prices were double, triple or ten times as much.
Investment dries up. Brains drained. The economy stagnated, causing unemployment to rise from 3.3 million in 1994 to 11.4 million today. The result: utter misery for the lower class, condemned to sit in tin huts, half starved, and watch the black elite grow fat on booty laws and rampant corruption.
This was a particularly bitter experience for young blacks, 63 percent of whom are now unemployed, too broke to get alcohol and drugs to relieve the pain. Last week Zuma and his followers found it easy to lure them into the streets with the promise of booty.
And that brings us to the moral of this story. It is a warning of the practical ramifications of ideas like those of Kendi and CRT superstar Robin DiAngelo, who, in the name of “justice,” believes it is racist to speak of work ethic or to expect all workers to show up on time, regardless of which race.
It was precisely these values that brought South Africa to its knees. We created a society where nothing was expected of black people except “blackness”. Honor and diligence were not required of government officials. Laziness was tolerated. Failures and corruption went unpunished. The blind pursuit of justice began to achieve the opposite: an amazing equality gap among blacks themselves, with a fortunate few benefiting enormously and plunging the masses into abject misery.
Most black South Africans recognize this. According to a survey by the Institute of Race Relations, only 3 percent of them named racism a serious problem by 2021. The same poll found that 83 percent of black South Africans fully or partially agree with the following statement: “Politicians talk about racism to excuse their own mistakes.”
Which brings us to the thin silver lining in this dark story. Many black South Africans opposing this lawlessness were in place last week, holding roadblocks to keep the mobs out of their homes and businesses.
I can hear their voices on the radio screaming for change. As it sounds, they want a country where human outcomes are determined by the content of one’s character, not pigmentation or friends in the ruling party. Martin Luther King would appreciate your message. Kendi & Co. not.
Rian Malan is the author of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and the worldwide bestseller “My Traitor’s Heart”.