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OPINION - Why diehard liberals should advocate for B-BBEE

DAILY FRIEND - OPINION / 09 JUNE 2020 - 15.44 / SIYA KHUMALO

At the Pentecostal Church I attended as a pre-teen, the pastor preached that the Constitutional legitimisation of same-sex unions was proof the world’s immorality had peaked: Jesus was going to return before the year 2000.

But what if he doesn’t? I wondered. What politic fits when religious faith remains a matter of conviction, conscience and choice? Isn’t it one where the number of possible choices is maximised while their risks are managed?

I was formulating a social contract that could contain the church’s hostility to my little secret, hopeful that a critical mass of South Africans would see the freedom of those we disagree with as a prerequisite for the possibility of their genuine cooperation. It wasn’t exposition on John Locke and Thomas Paine that made me embrace secular liberalism’s separation of church and state: as detailed in the book You Have To Be Gay To Know God (Kwela Books, 2018) it was that liberalism functioned as a pressure valve when the standard map for arriving at its concepts was not available to me. My life was the only territory I knew, and I had to map the world from that reference point.

The opponents of B-BBEE use a European map in an African country where the territory is apartheid spatial planning. In reality, transformation never could have been stopped, only co-opted, unless a critical mass of the haves took the concerns of the have-nots seriously. Liberals should consider advocating a form of B-BBEE (that comes with an expiry date) to recruit a critical mass of South Africans to liberalism through and then beyond B-BBEE, letting economic transformation give a critical mass of black people direct line-of-sight on the impact of government’s decisions on the private-sector economy. Our informal economy and state employment are usually shielded from policy cost.

ANC has been shrewd

The corrupt faction of the ANC has been shrewd on who benefits from B-BBEE: they’ve exposed only a handful of black individuals to what’s at stake when politicians run the economy, and in exchange for contracts those individuals have played pretend-transformation. The black voting majority is aware of this, but it can’t stomach the official opposition’s conflation of race-based economic redress policy with the corruption perpetrated through it: the dog-whistle implication is that anything with “black” in it is illegitimate.

Industrialists can re-flavour B-BBEE implementation through bona fide business transactions until a critical mass of black entrepreneurs say the tension between investor priorities and the cost of B-BBEE compliance is unsustainable. Non-racialism confuses the destination for the journey.

Consider a developing alternative scenario:

The Youth Employment Service (YES) Initiative founded by Tashmia Ismail-Saville provides a platform for businesses to create employment opportunities in exchange for a boost of up to two levels on their B-BBEE scorecards. Through it, 35 000 employment opportunities have been created apart from state funding, making YES a de-risked point to iterate and refine B-BBEE policy for rapid impact. Having put R1,4 billion in township and rural economies, the initiative helped 70% of its polled beneficiaries support households during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is perhaps more than the R3,500 grand total COVID-19 SASSA grants paid to 5 million applicants.

This disproves the point made by the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen at the Daily Maverick Gathering panel discussion that a system like SASSA can more immediately remedy poverty than race-based policy instruments. Granted, he couldn’t have known about the lockdown at the time. But neither did Ismail-Saville. One could say this only proves the SASSA grant system has been mismanaged while B-BBEE was used exceptionally well by YES, but we’d be back to it being about implementation and not just policy.

Better positioned

YES’s beneficiaries are better positioned than SASSA grant-recipients to experientially see that all state funding is only through, not from the state. Business leaders can harness B-BBEE not just for points (this unimaginative hollowness reflects in the lacklustre performance of token black appointees, turning the criticism of B-BBEE into a self-fulfilling prophecy) but to exchange economic and business insights with South Africa’s future. If that future’s going to sustainably benefit white people, it has to proportionately represent the demographics of the country without being a hollowed-out quota result. This sounds like cheating capitalism to entrench capitalism, but it’s the only way capitalism has ever taken off: from an illiberal and unsustainable launchpad like slavery, apartheid or colonialism that’s set aside once capitalism has sustainable momentum. The major difference is B-BBEE is voluntary; business leaders have scope to decide how they’ll engage it.

As Bonang Mohale reminded listeners at a webinar hosted by BEE Novation, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were used by the old government to extend economic access to poor Afrikaner people. Today, SOEs aren’t a sustainable route to inclusive economic industrialisation, as Moeletsi Mbeki pointed out at the same webinar, but B-BBEE’s Enterprise and Supplier Development element can be leveraged to cultivate black entrepreneurship and lessen the appeal of “expropriation without compensation” sloganeering. Ismail-Saville further pointed out that though B-BBEE discourse typically revolves around capital, contracts and on-selling without added value, it’s possible to build innovation into B-BBEE transactions and interventions.

In his purist refusal to examine what legal scholar Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw calls the “intersectionality of oppressions” as grounds for race-based economic redress policy, the classical liberal fails to impartially assess all data. Yet, to uphold the rule of law that liberals are so fond of, judges often make determinations based on all kinds of evidence, including oral testimony. Determining whether a person’s right to life has been violated, for example, is a simple matter of empirically investigating whether a person died by foul play. Determining whether there’s been a violation of the right to dignity, however, calls upon the expertise and storytelling expertise of psychologists and sociologists who listen.

Not only quantitative statistics

For these reasons, “proving” identity politics’ narrative on structural racism needs not only quantitative statistics on economic disparity, but qualitative and sociological analyses using tools of inquiry that explore realities accessible either through direct subjective experience, or vicariously through the risk of empathetically believing “the other” on things that aren’t immediately provable. A justice system that can’t say why this investigative risk is necessary for protecting human dignity will never account for why human lives are worth protecting. It’s a package deal. A society that fails at one point of justice will gradually be punished at the whole.

White South Africans have built literal fences to avoid entering into their black counterparts’ stories. How do we explain large numbers of black people’s reports that a racist system renders the mainstream economy inaccessible? Who’s being lazy, incompetent or dishonest here? How come the black liberal minority that embraces deracialised policy is treated as the rule and not the exception?

There is an unjust legacy whose impact is measurable, but whose racist mode of self-preservation evades direct empirical detection. The elusiveness of evidence for race-based explanations of structural power imbalances is the Gordian knot behind every sexual harassment dispute and domestic violence allegation: it’s frustratingly difficult to produce evidence for objective assessment apart from empathy and listening (resulting in low rapist conviction rates) because the a priori assumption that empiricism is a more reliable path to truth evades its own empirical verification. It can only serve those who already have power.

Intellectual sleight of hand

A classical liberal can either defend his conservative economic policy position using truths that have been exhaustively proven to be consistent, or truths consistently proven to be exhaustive: he can never do both concurrently except by an intellectual sleight of hand or a demonstration of omniscience. Pro-redress social liberals compromise ideological consistency to accommodate social evidence, but classical liberals salvage consistency by minimising evidence that historic injustices have crippling economic consequences. This is because while deriving proofs from first principles is difficult, proving first principles themselves is impossible: the instruments of proof cannot also be the specimen of proof. Logician Kurt Gödel showed that the consistency of any arithmetical fact is only provable using math that exceeds what’s being proven ahead of the completion of the proof; the arguer “borrows” provability against the proof’s future appearance. Yet, classical liberals pretend it’s only social liberals who face the insurmountable challenge of being both consistent and evidence-based, and then they round it off by calling themselves “rational”.

The beneficiaries of such ideological gymnastics say B-BBEE excludes white people. But at its best, it can include black people without excluding anyone. Contrary to zero-sum thinking, a growing economy need not displace those already inside; if it does, then the broader black majority is also being excluded by populists who deflect criticism by preaching expropriation without compensation to those black people.

Practised properly, B-BBEE is consensual expropriation with commensurate compensation.

Politicians defamed the word-cloud association on transformation, but if this were challenged by white people we’d see that those politicians no more believe their own populist rhetoric than my hypocritical Pentecostal pastor (who turned out to also be gay) believed his own anti-Constitution sermons.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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