White men must get to grips with history 101

ALTHOUGH they clearly dominate this economy, if there’s one thing that so many commercially influential white South African men are poor at, it is grasping social dynamics. They can be as high-profile as Chris Hart, be very good at doing business within this economy and have years of experience in their sector, but do not expect many of them to know why South African society exhibits so much dysfunction or understand the economic ramifications of this.

It took people like Radio 702 talk show host Redi Tlhabi, through a lengthy number of tweets, to tackle Hart after his misguided comment, in which he said: “More than 25 years after apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities…” Among other rebuttals, Tlhabi responded: “Which victims? The ones who cheered and opened their homes when rugby came to the township?”

Beyond the online debates, it was unsurprising to hear some white men calling in to radio stations, asking, “But what was racist about Chris Hart’s comment?” They sounded genuinely perplexed.

Now, it is always a dilemma for black people as to whether they should be explaining things, playing what I call “an intellectual domestic”, where you have to hold white people by the hand and explain South African sociology and history 101 to them. Black people should not have to do this kind of remedial work. Hart need only read Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like to discover why his specific usage of the term “minority” was sociologically incorrect.

But there was a broader point that Hart was making that black people have to grapple with as we think about increasing black participation in the economy. Hart tweeted: “Even if there was full economic transfer and full exclusion of white (sic) from the economy, there would be a massive black exclusion problem.”

I read Hart to mean that even if there was radical economic redistribution, the growth problem facing SA would not be solved. He is right, in some sense. Presumably, Hart here speaks of growth in the market fundamentalist sense, where the focus is on the conditions of doing business.

It would be easy to dismiss his comment as voicing the concerns of “white monopoly capital”. But we need to have a wider conception of the growth conundrum facing all modern states, and developing ones in particular. The growth conundrum is the problem facing all urbanising societies whose populations depend on a cash economy. In SA, rural areas are urbanising, even as they still retain the look of “villageness”, because they too must access cash.

Whether urban or rural, most modern households do not produce their own food; somebody else does. People have to buy food, goods and services. To do this, they need cash. If the goods they seek are manufactured in another country, then they need not just cash, but a meaningful currency with which to import these goods.

It does not matter whether a state is radical or marketist, it must be able to contend with global realities so that its ever-expanding urbanised populations can access goods it does not manufacture domestically. Because urbanised populations are ever growing, along with their needs, so too must their economies.

The problem of growth is an objective factor facing all 21st century states. Even though the growth debate is often dominated by the narrow interests of white big business, the debate on growth is unavoidable anyway.

If white South African men really want to contribute to these debates, as one believes Hart did, then they must at least first find some history books to help them unlearn their racism, so these attitudes do not suffocate meaningful public debate on the pressing problem of how to tackle growth.

• Mkhize lectures in history at Rhodes University

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