Cyril has it in for lazy whites, but his all-purpose smear by racial group is hardly confined to the ‘new dawn’ era

December 16 marks SA’s officially designated Day of Reconciliation. But to judge how little progress has been made on this path you simply needed to tune in to snippets of a radio interview – three days before – with the constitutionally mandated chief reconciler of the nation.

Section 83(c) of the Constitution commands the president of SA to “promote the unity of the nation and that which will advance the nation”.

On December 13, President Cyril Ramaphosa shared his thoughts in a wide-ranging interview with Xolani Gwala on Radio 702.

Aside from his enthusiastic and utterly risible support for his ethically hobbled and calamitous cabinet colleague, Bathabile Dlamini, the presidential pronouncement, which appeared to violate his oath of office, was his broadside against a section of his own population.

In the interview, Ramaphosa said: “White South Africans, mainly those with power in their hands, must realise that particularly young black people are becoming increasingly angry about their lackadaisical attitude … ”

The successor regime now has it in for lazy whites.“new dawn” era which Ramaphosa’s election in February was meant to herald. But the longevity of stamping entire sections of our population as “lackadaisical” or “idle” in our public life is not reassuring, either.

There is a direct, if deeply depressing, continuum between the presidential pronouncement on “lackadaisical whites” and an apartheid-era law dating in its origins to 1952. The target might have been different, but Section 29 of the Bantu (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act permitted a police officer to arrest without warrant in an urban area any African whom he “has reason to believe is an idle or undesirable person”.

Dubbed the “Idle Bantu Act” by its critics, this legislative mischief immiserated thousands of SA blacks who could not meet the arbitrary requirement of the legislation that any of its transgressors had to “give a good and satisfactory account of himself” before a designated Bantu Affairs Commissioner.

Of course that apartheid law came with real-time hardship and consequence, including banishment and relocation.

Before this pernicious piece of social engineering was consigned to history, two inventive and liberal supreme court judges in Natal (as it then was) rendered its provisions effectively inoperable.

There was nothing “lackadaisical” about the approach of Judge John Didcott (with the concurrence of Judge John Milne) to this legislation in 1979 when the case of one Jabulani Sydney Dube, who was stamped an “idle person”, came before their court.

The court creatively applied the maxim that while a decision might be in accordance with the legislation, “it can hardly be said to have been in accordance with justice”.

But aside from the judicial creativity and humanity on display, Justice Didcott’s decision stands out because he interrogated the particular and individual circumstances of the person. Because while the law made thousands of so-called “idle Bantu” subject to its harsh purview, the court held that since Dube was an epileptic who was frequently admitted to hospital, he was incapable of being employed and so fell completely outside the ambit of the legislation.

Never mind the creativity displayed by humane judges in dark times, note the individuation of the approach and how this was a fundamental reproach to a group-based mindset.

But that mindset or policy framework has lived on in the thinking and attitude of SA decision makers today. Witness the president’s “lackadaisical” remarks last week.

Of course, with the country being divided into hostile or fearful racial blocks under apartheid, it might seem entirely logical, even just, to use the same categories – just reverse the entitlements – in the post-apartheid era. But then the past never disappears, it just lives on in a new form.

Barrelling its way down the parliamentary pipeline is an update of the employment equity laws, which according to an amending bill will extend the racial bean counting in public sector appointments to wide swathes of the private sector. We have seen the results of this unthinking approach – which prioritises pigment above all else – to the present state dysfunction and can now expect similar results across the rest of society.

Last Thursday, just before Ramaphosa swiped at lackadaisical whites, a member of the same racial tribe was laid to rest in Cape Town.

Alex Boraine attracted considerable controversy in his very long-lived public career. He transitioned from an opposition MP in a white parliament to a leading figure in both the extra-parliamentary opposition to a key leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in paying tribute to Boraine at his funeral service, chided the churlishness of the state in declining Boraine an official funeral. Perhaps these are only reserved for members of the ruling party; or else, Boraine, like others, is an uncomfortable reminder that not every white nor black can be categorised – like the misleading T-shirt – as “one size fits all”.

But as we head into the 25th year since the apparent end of apartheid, last word should go to Boraine’s close colleague, the late Dr Van Zyl Slabbert.

In 2006, he warned: “If you make yourself hostage to a racist past, you can budget on a racist future.”

Last week, 13 years later, the country’s first citizen confirmed and updated the bleakness of this prophecy. From the era of the “idle bantu” to the new dawn of the “lackadaisical white”. We have come full circle.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

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