Idea of a colourless society is a sham, writes Prince Mashele

Herman Mashaba. Photo: Arnold Pronto
Herman Mashaba. Photo: Arnold Pronto

Self-made tycoon Herman Mashaba has now been confirmed as the Democratic Alliance's mayoral candidate for Johannesburg.

We must congratulate the DA on catching such a big, black fish. The irony, though, is that Mashaba is ambivalent about such policies as black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action (AA). He says being asked "to confirm that I am black is an insult".

Mashaba sees himself more as a human being than a black person. It makes sense why he chose the DA as his political home: the party preaches "open opportunities for all". Former DA leader Tony Leon likens Herman Mashaba to Donald Trump, seemingly unaware that, in addition to being a savvy businessman, Trump has the unflattering reputation of a political buffoon.

The DA is a liberal party. Liberals believe that by giving people freedom, they will fend for themselves. The other cardinal liberal tenet is that people must not be treated as a group; they are individuals.

When the British colonial government ended slavery in the Cape Colony in 1834, it was hailed as a great act of liberal benevolence.

The Afrikaners were so livid they packed their belongings in wagons and began to trek northward - in the Great Trek.

What these Afrikaners did not realise is that the English - liberals - were smart enough to understand that, since the "freed" slaves had neither land nor property, they would return to seek employment from their former owners. Such is the hollowness of freedom.

By calling for "freed" slaves to be treated as individuals, the liberals did not want the slaves to regard themselves as a disempowered collective, and therefore unite in demanding economic opportunities. Such is the deceptiveness of individualism.

A manumitted slave was made to think of himself as an unfortunate individual, not realising that he was part of a group that had been systematically impoverished by white settlers who, as a group, continued to enjoy life.

Mashaba's mania for economic growth sounds like sensible economics, but there is shakiness about his underlying philosophy of colourlessness.

There is a veneer of nobility to de-emphasising race in normal human relations, but South Africa is far from normal. Samuel Huntington once said that South Africa was a society of racial communities. The features of such a society are well embodied in the unequal distribution of wealth between blacks and whites today.

Without targeted state interventions - such as affirmative action - fancy ideologies like "open opportunities for all" smell like opium to black people.

The greatest challenge to liberals in South Africa today, as it has been historically, is how to diminish a sense of collective consciousness among black people.

If black people were to become race unconscious - like Mashaba, perhaps - the self-awareness of their status as a servant population would get diluted. And that would not disturb the status quo.

His political opponents' mischief aside, Mmusi Maimane is right: "We - as black South Africans - are still made to feel inferior because of the colour of our skin."

The language of "we" is very scary to white liberals. They are happy to hear a black person say "I", as if he dangles alone, in the air. Yet white liberals know that they themselves have always been a group. What was the expansion of the "British Empire" about?

Was it not to make Britons, as a national group, powerful all over the world? Cecil John Rhodes was honest enough to declare it in his Confession of Faith.

It was not an accident that, before 1994, successive liberal parties in South Africa never had a black leader. Mashaba's ancestors were viewed and treated as "savages" by white liberal parties.

Were Mashaba to be elected mayor of Johannesburg, it seems he would endeavour to make a melting pot of the city.

Truth be told, the idea of a colourless society is illusory. There is nothing unnatural about being black, much as there is nothing wrong about being white. Colour is the spice that gives flavour to the universe.

He who abhors colour has no idea of beauty

The problem is the appropriation of colour to construct social theories that justify the subjugation of a race by another, the very thing done by liberals and racists in history.

It is the urgent need to correct this ugly past that necessitates targeted measures to empower black people.

The unsolicited advice proffered here is that Mashaba should think more reflectively and perhaps moderate his yearning for colourlessness. Managing a city may turn out to be more complex than running Black Like Me.

To avoid hurting the DA electorally, particularly among black voters, Mashaba might need to re-craft his message around black economic empowerment and affirmative action.

Black disempowerment is not an ideological fiction; it is an objective reality. Long after 1994, black people are still a servant population - serving white people.

Mr Mashaba, be careful.