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10/05/2018 13:57 SAST | Updated 10/05/2018 14:00 SAST

Dear Ferial Haffajee: Privilege Has Always Existed And Always Will

"If you were born to a class or group that held political and economic power, life was privileged; if not, you were more or less doomed to poverty."

Gulshan Khan/ AFP/ Getty Images
DA leadership – (L-R) deputy federal chairperson Mike Waters, deputy chairperson Refiloe Nt'sekhe, president Mmusi Maimane, federal chairperson Atholl Trollip, chairperson of the federal council James Selfe, women's network leader Nomafrench Mbombo and youth leader Luyolo Mphithi – speak at a press conference at the party's federal congress in Pretoria on April 8 2018.

OPINION

Slogans and stories abound that continuously feed the need by rescuers and persecutors and victims that detract from self-empowerment; they constantly call for 'playing fields be levelled', to ostensibly solve the ills of society.

This toxic triangulation is often mischaracterised as "progressive", and while there is little self-awareness and no desire to free oneself or take responsibility for beliefs or behaviour, many, like Ferial Haffajee (What Mmusi Maimane Should Do To Fix The DA), champion these notions, and fail to appreciate an unassailable historic truth: privilege has always existed and always will.

They focus exclusively and selectively on less benign and often brutal historical passage and processes that rendered some better off (materially and emotionally). What eludes them is that the ever-present fact that privilege is not a series of discrete institutional creations; it is the manifestation of history ever since man dispensed economic and other assets in any socialised fashion.

Conquest expanded the pool and sphere of control of these assets, and successive battles have raged to alter the balance of authority over these resources.

South Africa is no different. Black African tribes engaged each other in battles for dominance and European arrivals contested the same arena. Fast-forward to 1994, and the fall of apartheid, and we witnessed an array of parties competing in the same space with different ideologies.

Here the DA, in synch with its foundational values, in the post-1994 negotiated consensus championed the growth of the economy and the adherence to a bill of rights and constitution, as the mechanism to raise the tide that lifts all boats. It eschewed all forms of racial nationalism and collectivism in its elevation of individual choice within an open society.

Where is the language of cooperation, of support, of building rather than breaking? The language of breaking and wresting is the sort of sloganeering employed by the EFF and the ANC in their expedient quest to garner votes and power at all costs.

But let us for a moment change our focus from the privations of colonialism and apartheid — which were ugly — and instead focus on life in the 16th century, which was awfully bleak. As Mark Hendrickson, adjunct professor of economics at Grove City College, points out, if you were lucky enough to have been born to a class or group that held all political and economic power, life was privileged; if not, you were more or less doomed to a life of poverty.

If you were born poor, you could almost always count on dying poor. You were stuck in a static world that was socially static, politically static, and economically static.

In was in such a world that the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne conceived of the world as a zero-sum place, one in which "no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another". And so the economic game was rigged by the political elite to enrich themselves at the expense of the masses, who were always on the outside looking in.

In a zero-sum world, the only way to increase one's own prosperity would be to reduce someone else's. And as economist Ludwig von Mises observed, "As long as the people cling to the Montaigne dogma and think that they cannot prosper economically except at the expense of other nations, peace will never be anything other than a period of preparation for the next war."

But we don't live in a zero-sum world; we do not inhabit a polity that doesn't recognise equality of opportunity and that aims not to ameliorate privation. This doesn't mean that it's hunky dory for all and that we can rest on our laurels either.

We need to build inclusive political institutions and combat extractive ones that concentrate power in the hands of a narrow elite. It also doesn't mean that we have free rein to vilify others because of the characteristics of their birth by the confrontational juxtaposition of white privilege and black poverty —especially when a quarter of a century later, the ongoing creation of a new racially defined elite is hailed as a victory by some.

This sets us apart from our detractors who, in championing a dogmatic 'progressive' agenda that ostensibly stands against prejudice, actually and perversely promotes it.

It's certainly no victory for the majority of ordinary South Africans, who instead of being educated and given the access to social capital for self-advancement, are pitted against each other as if it were some sort of zero-sum game. Where is the language of cooperation, of support, of building rather than breaking? The language of breaking and wresting is the sort of sloganeering employed by the EFF and the ANC in their expedient quest to garner votes and power at all costs.

I see the DA as being different. We are different because, like Bertrand Russell, we hold that "the essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment." This sets us apart from our detractors who, in championing a dogmatic "progressive" agenda that ostensibly stands against prejudice, actually and perversely promotes it.

Haffajee derides us as "classical liberals who — in a South African context of racialised poverty, anaemic black equity in workplaces and skewed land ownership — can fairly be called conservative in their positioning and thinking. They shy away from (or are mealy-mouthed on) black empowerment, effective land restitution, workplace equity and economic growth recipes that take account of South Africa's history and policy."

She fails, however, to differentiate between our dismissal of zero-sum economics, our constitutional adherence and our championing of an open society, as against the social engineering that seeks to target and blame others in some sort of "progressive" tit-for-tat exercise.

Sociologists and psychologists hold that some of the emotionality in prejudice stems from subconscious attitudes that cause a person to ward off feelings of inadequacy by projecting them onto a target group. By using certain people as scapegoats — those without power who are unfairly blamed — anxiety and uncertainty are reduced by attributing complex problems to a simple cause: "Those people are the source of all my problems."

Social research across the globe has shown that prejudice is fundamentally related to low self‐esteem. By hating certain groups (in this case, minorities), people are able to enhance their sense of self‐worth and importance. It would be foolish and morally suspect to play into this. We should know better.