Have you heard of Black Economic Empowerment? Probably not. Me neither until last week, when I met Ca’reen Johnson Govindasamy, a woman of Indian heritage who lives in South Africa. When I asked her about the political situation in her country, she looked round furtively, said ‘sorry if I’m being racist but …’ and then proceeded to tell me about the discrimination and injustice which she, other Indians and the white population of South Africa have to suffer, due to this policy.

Ca’reen was not being racist — in fact quite the opposite. She was raising a very valid criticism of the racism which permeates everyday life in South Africa.

Black Economic Empowerment refers to a post-Apartheid policy aimed at opening up opportunities for South Africa’s black population. It imposes quotas to ensure black South Africans are appropriately represented in both the public and private sector — the intention, of course, being to rectify the damage caused by Apartheid.

Instead however, it has caused a genuine increase in poverty among South Africa’s white and Indian population. And since Cyril Ramaphosa came to power in February, the situation has only got worse, with a very distinct hierarchy having emerged.

No one can deny that the horrors of the Apartheid era were just that: horrific. Nor can anyone draw a valid parallel between the racism in South Africa during the mid-twentieth century and the racism there today. But neither of these things mean we can vindicate awarding people opportunities and rights purely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

I have spoken to Ca’reen to investigate this veiled discrimination which has become the norm in South Africa.

What is the racial hierarchy in South Africa like?

She talked about four distinct races into which people are pigeonholed in South Africa: native black people, white people, Indian people and coloured people (mixed race). She described Indians as being ‘in between’.

How can a racial hierarchy of any description — regardless of who is at the bottom and who is at the top — be justified?

South Africa in fact has the biggest Indian population outside of India, something which many people don’t realise. But they are not a valued group in South African society, and according to Ca’reen, many ‘don’t see Indians as true South Africans’.

How do the discriminatory policies affect you?

Ca’reen told me simply and bluntly that if she is ‘in competition with a black person, they have preference’. Indians are an extremely hardworking group of people, yet they have nothing to show for their efforts — solely ‘because of the colour they were born’.

Naturally, I wondered why on earth companies in South Africa comply with this, and she explained to me that ‘businesses pay less tax according to how many BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) points they have. Hiring a black person has the highest points … Indians are in the middle again’.

I was shocked. For one, this is detrimental for the South African economy; production levels obviously fall, because incentive is stifled and meritocracy is compromised. But it also carries echoes of the sorts of policies in place during the Apartheid epoch — as Ca’reen put it, a ‘mirror image’.

How are Indians perceived in South Africa?

She told me that the black population of South Africa (the vast majority, at 76 per cent) ‘feel like we are stealing from them and that we should go back to India’. Once a colonised people — like the native South Africans — Indians have experienced their fair share of oppression and discrimination. This makes their predicament even more unjust, and it has left them feeling ostracised and bitter.

Ca’reen said: ‘I was born in South Africa, so were my grandparents and great grandparents and so forth’. Yet in spite of this, she is still not considered to be a true South African.

South Africa has such a large Indian population because when it was a British colony, the UK authorities sent Indians there to work on the sugar plantations; they are victims of imperialism too. So why, then, should they have to be pawns in the social power struggle between black and white South Africans?

Would you describe it as positive discrimination or another form of racism?

Ca’reen considers Black Economic Empowerment to be racism, pure and simple. She said ‘if you study and work for many years for your degree and someone who has no education receives the job just because of the colour of they were born, [this] is completely unfair and unjust’.

She is right. It can hardly be denied. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with the recent polemic over diversity in Oxbridge. The reason some Cambridge colleges didn’t accept any black students last year wasn’t because they perceive white people to be superior, but because the white people happened to have better grades, better personal statements and better interview skills. So why should those better candidates lose out? The same applies to the situation in South Africa.

Yes, opening up opportunities for black people is important, but this should not be at the expense of the rights of white people, or Indian people, or Jewish people, or Chinese people, or Hawaiian people.

So why does no one speak out about this?

Ca’reen’s answer to this question was telling. She said ‘people don’t speak about it because we are indoctrinated … that policy was put in place to reverse the past’. But does the past need to be reversed? And has this reversal already gone too far in the opposite direction?

And perhaps the fact that no one in this country is aware of the reality in South Africa tells us something about the problem with our own attitudes. I’ll leave you to work that one out.

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