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[Opinion] ‘Affirmative action’ means many things: Zille, Leon have yet to show they understand (by Jonny Steinberg)

November 18, 2013

ALBERT Camus was a man who understood what it meant to experience change. Born in the poor districts of Algiers in 1913, raised by a mother who could neither read nor write, he died a Nobel laureate and a world-famous intellectual. His transformation began when a school teacher recognised his talent and got him to sit the entrance exam for a lycée, an elite school, which he passed with flying colours. In his novel, The First Man, the protagonist, Jacques, a thinly veiled version of Camus himself, recalls what it meant to make the transition from his simple home to this esteemed place of power and learning.

“In this home where there were no newspapers … no radio, where there were only objects of immediate utility … what Jacques brought home from the lycée could not be assimilated, and the silence grew between him and his family.”

If his experience of the lycée made him a stranger in his own home, his background made him a stranger in the lycée.

Staring out of the window in class one day, he realised that he had been “hurtled into a strange world, one no longer his … (where) he would have to grow up and bring himself up alone…”.

Many South Africans reading these lines will feel a prick of recognition. To be born in one world and to try to make it in another — this is the defining experience of several million people whom democracy has made upwardly mobile. It is this experience, above all, that is shaping our political life. On one side of the spectrum, it has made possible the rise of, but also set limits for, Julius Malema, which will be the subject of my next column. But it is also at the root of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) predicament. The party’s fortunes will rise or fall on its ability to show that it comprehends this experience and has sympathy for it.

Most of us who read Business Day can be forgiven for understanding little about what it means to be newly middle class.

For many of us whites, it was our grandparents, in some cases our great-great-grandparents, who made the breakthrough.

And most black people who read this newspaper have, as they say, arrived.

Below them are countless people living the most precarious lives. They are no longer like their parents and understand that they can never properly return whence they came. But nor have they arrived. They have educated themselves as best they can, but find themselves scrambling from one freelance job to another, often in IT or finance. They drive cars, but on borrowed money. They have private healthcare, but that will be taken away when work dries up. And they live amid a lot of illness, for they are in the eye of the storm that is HIV/AIDS.

In a very real sense, they live nowhere, for while the working-class worlds of their parents are no longer their own, the world of the middle class is also not theirs. Their grip upon it is too tenuous. It belongs to others, to people who have been born to it and simply breathe its air: white people, in the main.

In the past couple of weeks, the DA’s present and former leaders, Helen Zille and Tony Leon, have signalled that they do not understand this experience, that they have no sympathy for it. It is not what they have said; it is their silences that have spoken.

“Affirmative action” means many things. At the level at which Zille has been talking about it, it concerns the nuts and bolts of recruitment policy.

But at another level, it is a symbol, a message. It says: “We in power see you. We recognise you. We understand that the colour of your skin is making life scary.”

Zille’s and Leon’s silence says the opposite: “We do not see you for we have not the imagination to step out of our skins. We are oblivious to your experience.”

The DA’s task is monstrously hard.

There is a lot of talk at the moment of the black middle class’s disillusionment with the African National Congress (ANC).

But this disillusionment cannot, as if by magic, close a gulf in racial experience. In the DA’s existing heartland, the term “affirmative action” triggers thoughts of entitlement and incompetence. In its prospective heartland, the one it imagines and wishes for, the words “entitlement” and “incompetence” signal the smugness and stupidity of those who cannot understand. These two constituencies inhabit the same world, but they live on different planets. The DA’s challenge is to speak to the souls of both at the same time, to allay the fears of one while kindling the hopes of the other.

If the DA fails, the precariously middle class will fall back on a love-hate relationship with the ANC. They will despise it for its corruption and its pomp. But they will love it because it understands.

• Steinberg teaches African Studies at Oxford University.

Courtesy of Business Day

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