Forty-five years ago, on June 16, 1976, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was killed when police opened fire on black students protesting against the application of Afrikaans education. The now iconic photo of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying Hector’s body is widely regarded as the turning point in the struggle for freedom and democracy.
It will take another 14 years for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison and 18 years before South Africa has its first democratic elections. That was 27 years ago. In many ways, it’s not hard to see why many young white South Africans believe they are being unfairly persecuted for a regime that ended before they were born.
As someone who openly approaches the current realities of institutionalized racism and leads conversations about racial polarization, I often have young people who disagree with me. They believe that Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is racism in reverse and that white privilege does not apply to them because they were born after apartheid. They claim that they don’t come from wealthy backgrounds and that they worked hard to get their degrees. They see it as unfair that they cannot easily get government and corporate jobs.
The opportunities offered to our young people remain central to this story, whether we look at 1976 or 2021. How do we balance that? How do we support all of our young people nearly three decades into our democracy?
Bridging the inequality gap
As difficult as it may be for many young white South Africans, the first step is to accept that white privilege exists and that it has nothing to do with wealth and hard work and everything to do with opportunity. . All white people in South Africa, even those born after 1994, have most certainly been the beneficiaries of systemic racism and they will have to compromise while the playing field is level.
Take the example of two young men trying to enter the workforce.
Jean is 22 years old. He was born in 1999 and raised in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. His father is an entrepreneur who has been running an electricity company for several years. Her mother is a marketing manager. The family is financially comfortable without being too rich. John attended a private school before studying a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Johannesburg, which he obtained in three years. He was not an A student but did quite comfortably. During his school holidays, he worked in his father’s business to earn some pocket money. John could describe his upbringing as normal and easy. He got his first car as soon as he got his driver’s license at the age of 18. Family discussions had always revolved around business, and John had a good idea of what it meant to be in business.
Lebo is 24 years old. He was born in 1997 and grew up in Soweto in a small four-room house. Her father is a factory worker in Germiston and her mother is a domestic worker in Oaklands, Johannesburg. He shared a room with two siblings and had to take two taxis to school each day. His overcrowded school did not have enough teachers or desks, and when he came home each day, he had to finish his homework and study with his two siblings still present. School wasn’t easy and Lebo ended up staying a year behind, not enrolling until he was 19. He managed to get a college entrance mark. Determined to help his son have a better future than him, Lebo’s father was able to organize funding for the university thanks to a loan from his employer.
Lebo also studied for his Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Johannesburg, but his lower education had not prepared him enough for college, so he failed his first year. Subsequently, through increased efforts and a better understanding of how to meet the challenges of a college education, he spent the next three years well and graduated. The discussions at the table were far from business and focused on family news and financial difficulties. Even though he was surrounded by love, Lebo could describe his life as anything but comfortable and he wouldn’t be able to afford a car until much later in his life.
John and Lebo, with essentially the same academic qualifications and intelligence, are now applying for the same position as manager intern in a large retail chain. Imagine that we are in a world where BEE does not exist. The rules are simply “the best candidate wins”.
The company’s interviewer is a middle-aged white male. John tells him about rugby and shares his experience working at his father’s company, where he served customers and reconciled money every day. Lebo has nothing in common with the interviewer and is embarrassed by his strong African accent.
In the above scenario, and without BEE in place, who do you think was the successful candidate? Considering the different life experiences of these two characters, this was never going to be a fair competition. For Lebo, it’s like stepping into a boxing ring with his hands tied behind his back. BEE is an intervention that makes the playing field more level. Without it, the inequality gap produced by apartheid will grow larger and larger until something is shattered.
Entrepreneurship is the cure
The question remains: what about John? He worked hard, so surely he deserves a future too?
I would say that his degree, his support system, his school network, his background in cash reconciliation and customer service, not to mention years of hearing about what it means to own and run a business, gives John it all. what he needs to follow in his father’s footsteps and start his own business.
Although I am disappointed with the way it has been implemented, I support BEE. I also believe that entrepreneurship has the potential to solve so many problems in our country. If white graduates stop thinking about all that goes against them and instead focus on what they have for them, opportunities will present themselves, with the added benefit of not only creating jobs for themselves, but also for others.
The unemployment rate in South Africa is 32%. For our younger generation, it is much worse. Over 55% of our young people are unemployed.
Isn’t it time we started to encourage our young people to find solutions, to start businesses and to take control of their own destiny?