Achieving a meritocracy takes more than calls for transformation - Businesslive

13 November 2022 - I owe my — admittedly slight — familiarity with Giambattista Vico to reading the work of Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said.

Michael Morris

I owe my — admittedly slight — familiarity with Giambattista Vico to reading the work of Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said.

For the life of me, though, I can’t remember the context in which Said — loved and hated for his writing on the Middle East, and possibly underappreciated for his writing on music — invoked 18th -century philosopher Vico’s insistence on acknowledging that all things have a beginning.

But ever since encountering this simple idea it has seemed to me to be the inescapable first step in thinking about the things that make us who we are, and why they matter.

I was reminded of Vico’s almost chiding wisdom, “verum esse ipsum factum” (truth is itself something made) by the reader who ticked me off recently for making too much of the argument for merit in observing of Rishi Sunak that his “ascendancy reflects a standard that is increasingly unexceptional in succeeding, stable, self-assured societies, who do, by and large, pay attention above all to the merits of the case”.

That I concluded by saying “SA could be there, too — if we could just say farewell to our costly, outdated obsessions” does, I can see, imply that I might have let Vico slip my mind, and so overlooked the origins of our condition.

In fact, my view has not changed at all since writing in 2019 that the “common objection to the argument for merit” — that it is “simply a way of preferring the advantaged, which, in SA, is read to mean ‘white’, in the job market, business, the public service, the selection of sports teams, entrance to university and wherever else people hope to be given a chance of proving themselves — (is) not actually far off the mark”.

I went on, though, that “the objection reinforces rather than undermines the virtue of merit itself, and vividly exposes what SA is doing wrong in its avowed effort to ‘transform’ itself. Merit is not the problem. The problem is persistent and widespread disadvantage that undermines the potential merit-worthiness of so many millions, and which current policy is doing little to overcome.

“If this “underscores the importance of tackling disadvantage ... with much greater effect ... it also means the argument about merit, if it hopes to gain credence, has to be advanced with greater care and intellectual rigour than many of its devotees might suppose”.

The reasoning that most strongly influences my thinking on the topic is probably best illuminated by former colleague Gwen Ngwenya in The Demerits of Race, published on Politicsweb in November 2019.

She urges that proponents of meritocracy “must take seriously the charges levelled against it ... (or) risk its becoming so distorted, divisive and acrimonious a concept that it is snuffed out completely”.

The core of the problem, Ngwenya argues, is that “(too) many who profess to care about meritocracy, exhibit no concern at all for the process of becoming meritorious”.

Merit, she writes, is “not a tide which lifts all, even when it lifts many, and must be accompanied with clarity about how we will bring along those that might otherwise be left behind”.

As parties prepare once again to win votes with promises of that better life so many still await, my worry is that the ANC and its increasingly pitiable hangers-on have, by their venality and fecklessness, so thoroughly discredited and subverted the notions of “empowerment” and “transformation” that society may misperceive how real empowerment and transformation remain sorely needed, and misjudge what achieving a meritocracy will take.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.