Misuse of racial identity stops the spread of capitalism’s benefits - Businesslive

26 January 2020 - Overdue spring cleaning in late December yielded an unexcavated pile of documents and cuttings I had long ago assembled under the tantalising label “Useful/Keep”.

Michael Morris
Overdue spring cleaning in late December yielded an unexcavated pile of documents and cuttings I had long ago assembled under the tantalising label “Useful/Keep”.

An hour into the sorting I had three piles of unthrow-away-able materials, and nil for the bin (a statistic discretion persuaded me to keep from my wife).

It shouldn’t have taken that long, but half the joy of being a hoarder is actually seeing what you’ve got and being reminded why you thought it was worth keeping in the first place.

One item I dwelled on was a 1993 edition of the magazine Work in Progress. The cover story — “The New SA Identity Crisis, Who says it don’t matter if you’re black or white?” — could have been written the week before.

Another was a spare cutting of a story I did in 2006 on a weekday evening “masterclass” by a man who, I wrote, “to his credit retains an air of bullish street suss, the instinctive acumen of the teenage gambler and the 20-something car boot salesman unspoilt by the wealth and status the self-made millionaire has gained since”.

He was Herman Mashaba. He thrilled his audience of would-be entrepreneurs, who marvelled at his life story, the hard times of his youth in Ramotse, near Hammanskraal, the forging of his business smarts peddling hair-care products, and his pride in eventually manufacturing his own and, later, putting them on the shelves of London stores.

The piece began: “You picture a savvy Herman Mashaba at 24, in his first suit, leaning into the boot of his car to haul out some product and saying to himself: ‘Herman, let’s go make some money’.”

I think of him, even now, as the most unembarrassed moneymaker I have ever met. As if describing someone he deeply admired, he said at one point: “Mashaba was born a capitalist. If there is one person who loves making money, it’s this man.”

Interestingly, though, there was no hint of vainglory — his was a distinctly transformative message, even a political one. He scoffed at do-gooding, and business people pretending big-hearted altruism was really their motivation. Making money, he insisted, was the most important thing a business could do to advance the national interest.

“I strongly believe, guys, let’s go out there and make money,” he said. “Let’s not be apologetic about it. There’s nothing wrong with it.” On reprise, he added a critical condition: “If you are operating in a legal framework, which is designed to spread the benefits, there’s nothing to say sorry for.”

Coming across this quite ordinary idea — succeeding within a framework “designed to spread the benefits” — set off a keen association with that Work in Progress article on SA’s 1993 “identity crisis”, in particular, historian Colin Bundy’s remark about the “dangers” of what he called “partial transformation”.

The risk lay in perpetuating “the experiential conditions that make a mockery of nonracialism”. Bundy added: “We need to ask ourselves: 'As long as Khayelitsha or Alexandra exist, how do we achieve nonracialism?’”

It is a shocking indictment of post-democracy policy and administration that, all these years later — as long a time as Nelson Mandela languished in jail — the partial transformation Bundy warned of has been at once achieved and stifled by a cynical resuscitation of the racial identitarianism of the old order, vastly expanding the wealth of a small elite while guaranteeing that, in the absence of a framework really capable of spreading benefits, the experiential conditions that define the life of millions remains a mockery of nonracialism.

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