Transformation by quota is barking mad

Jack Lewis
The author says Tina Joemat-Peterson has failed. Source: Wikipeda.
Jack Lewis

Jack Lewis argues that government’s transformation plan is based on identity politics and is misguided. He asks people on the political left to speak out against it.

Our Minister of Agriculture, Tina Joemat-Peterson, is accused in a front page report in this week’s Sunday Times of taking a kickback of a R100 thousand on an “empowerment deal” for 100 “disadvantaged women”. The deal involves the purchase with state funds in 2006 of an R18 million game farm, Sunset Lodge, 100 kms outside Kimberly. Joemat-Peterson was an MEC in the Northern Cape government at the time and secured state funds for the deal.

It’s not the kick-back that worries me, criminal though it is, if true. Governments world over do likewise. Joemat-Peterson has of course denied the charge. Her spokesperson said she was a “people orientated leader who consistently serves others and strives for the development of rural women and rural communities. The farm was for the benefit of rural women through skills development and employment creation.”

If that is the case, then on her spokeperson’s own words, Joemat-Peterson has failed. Sunset Lodge, trading as Siyancuma Women Game Farming Pty Ltd., collapsed.

The members decided to sell the farm to a white Afrikaner male for R19 million. Talk about back to square one! It’s this fruitless expenditure itself that is the worst crime against the unemployed, poor and marginalised women who it failed to “empower”. Women who were part of this project said they agreed to the sale of the lodge “because they were making no money from it.”

Why did it fail? Because, explained one women, “The Department of Agriculture just left us on that farm. We didn’t know how to run that place and it was not sustainable. Nobody made any money. At the end of the day, the land didn’t put food on our tables.” Who was “chosen” for the scheme? “The women who were chosen to be part of the trust were ANC volunteers and worked for the ANC in different areas,” said a participant.

This kind of “redistribution” undermines economic growth and job creation and does nothing for redistribution and equality either. But there are alternatives. It needs to be said openly from the left that the whole notion of equality based mainly on race and gender representation is wasteful and uses huge resources which could better be transferred to poor and marginalised and mainly, but not exclusively, black people and communities directly. Redressing the consequences of historical disadvantage is necessary. Sadly, it cannot be achieved by simply giving assets to people who are not in a position to use them.

Identity politics is deeply rooted in elite national thinking—broad categories such as black, white, women and men, form the compass needles of policy thinking and formulation. And undoubtedly these categories have a strong influence on all of us. These identities are manipulated to create a fiction that transferring assets from mainly white male to nominally black and female hands will lead to something called “transformation” and that this equates to national prosperity and progress. Manifestly it does not and will not. In reality these measures protect big corporate interests and the existing distribution of wealth in South Africa.

Why are our attempts to historical redress couched in quantitative targets like these: the number of hectares in “black hands”, the achievement of 50% representation of women in parliament and the civil service, the “transformation” of the judiciary in terms of the number of female and black judges? Clearly there is great symbolic power in this kind of transfer. It is gratifying. It keeps the hope alive in millions of hearts that “something might come my way” and as a consequence buys votes for the ANC. But it is a scam. Its real purpose is to buy off black elites and maintain corporate and ANC power. An alternative to the ANC will have to free itself from this kind of identity politics thinking and find its voice in a class based alternative. Sadly, being a female says absolutely nothing about willingness and ability to fight gender violence and discrimination. Being black does not equate to support for Constitutional values, equality, redistribution or anything else. These limited criteria are in fact leading to the failure of the “transformation” project, its degeneration into an elite enrichment project.

It’s necessary to say openly why these elite transfer projects fail. The main reason, as the women of Sunset Lodge discovered, is that it takes a particular set of attributes to successfully manage an enterprise. The larger the enterprise the more management expertise it takes. And those attributes cannot be summoned into existence or provided through a quick fix training programme. The capacity to run enterprises is, like income, unequally distributed in society and reflects decades, even centuries of privilege. Redressing this requires an educated population. The states bungling of education is more than well known. As a consequence progress in building the educated cadre the country needs is way behind schedule.

The clearest example of this misuse of the symbolism of “transformation” and “empowerment” leads is Zuma’s creation of the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities with Lulu Xingwana as Minister. No one, including this department knows what it is supposed to do, other than organise “special days”, which involve handing out catering contracts to buddies. The Departments budget is R198 million—one of the smallest in government but still an awful lot of money to waste. This Department has the largest proportion of staff on salaries over R1 million a year, 48 out of 149 staff members. What do they achieve? What value do they bring for that money? Those funds could have been and should be spent directly on measures to support poor women: from backyard gardening and income generation to gender violence reduction projects. Now add this waste to Joemat-Peterson’s R18 million waste and all the other waste and you will soon reach billions of rand; money if spent properly that could support real redistribution, create employment and stimulate growth.

Quotas and targets for redress are necessary. But, because they are so politically useful, securing as they do the compliance and loyalty of elites and the middle class to the ANC, it is easy to be blinded to the negative consequences for the poor. A clear case of a good quota that will have positive long term outcomes is UCTs admission criteria, which is succeeding in producing more black and women graduates who will service society well in the coming decades. But the negative consequences of misapplied quotas and targets are also with us. The transformation of the judiciary is a case in point.

This is at the heart of the exclusion of Geoff Budlender and Clive Plunket from the judiciary. Both of these two recent candidates for judicial appointment have great legal experience, rigour and deep commitment to Constitutional values. They have been excluded in favour of more compliant judges, black and white, because they are progressive jurists who might favour the poor and marginalised and challenge executive action. As one past Judicial Service Commissioner commented, “the problem is not that the Commission doesn’t appoint white males, but that it appoints compliant weak white judges rather than strong independent-minded ones like Plasket or Budlender.” And in carrying out this “class project” the JSC can hide behind its quotas and its “racial” and “gender” transformation claims.

A left voice needs to say to poor people that the state will end elite redistribution and empowerment and redistribute more income (via social grants) in exchange for work, for township construction and maintenance, house building, playground building, after school study session supervision, crèche work, backyard vegetable farming and similar measures which will put bread on many tables and improve quality of life in poor areas.

Jack Lewis is a farmer, political economist and the former director of Community Media Trust.

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