He will start his tertiary education and, probably, move out of the parental home to live in a student’s residence somewhere out there; or not. He might also have to find a weekend and holiday job to earn a bit of pocket money and to get some work experience.
In his hunt for a job, he will compete with others, many of them boys and girls with whom he started Grade 1 several years ago. He is African.
His peers and competitors for the job opportunities will come from all South African backgrounds; wealthy, middle-class and poorer. They will also come in all colours of the South African ethnic, racial, and religious spectrum.
Some of them will not have to fight too hard to find weekend and holiday jobs; in fact, they probably already have jobs and other opportunities lined-up for them by wealthy parents, connected parents or, simply, lucky parents who know the right people in the right places and will pull the right kind of strings for their kids.
There is probably a whole basket of things that tie my son to his peers but, for the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on one.
They are all South African; offspring of parents who are products of a messed-up history. Some have accepted apartheid for what it was and have come to terms with the terrible ways in which it shaped their thinking about fellow South Africans, especially human beings who look different from them; while many others remain steadfast in their denial about the monstrosity that was apartheid and how it shaped their thinking.
The latter often populate the unlikeable, irritating “move-on brigade” and are quick to urge everyone else to only look to the future, and pretend that the past has not left any lasting emotional scars.
In any case, if my son is lucky, because he is African – “Black” if you insist – he will be eligible to benefit from the existing range of post-apartheid economic redress measures such as B-BBEE and Affirmative Action; but not his white best friends with whom he has been playing and socialising ever since he started Grade 1. I know that I shouldn’t be uncomfortable with that; but a part of me is.
I shouldn’t be uncomfortable because most, if not all, of my son’s friends come from wealthy white families who live in big, expensive-looking houses located in wealthy suburbs.
During apartheid, not only would my father (may his soul rest in peace) have been able to afford to buy a house in these suburbs, he probably would have been prevented from doing so even if he had the money because he was African, also called Bantu, or Native, of simply Black – depending on what those who had the power chose to call people like him over time.
I could possibly fill-up a page with a list of other reasons to make me feel better for having a son who will probably benefit from post-apartheid economic redress measures, but there is no need for that; they are all known.
The source of my discomfort comes from the fact that over the years that I have known all of my son’s friends, only once, when he was in primary school, did he come home confused by the refusal of the parents of one of them to let their child bring a black friend to visit their home. For the rest, my son has always enjoyed good human relations with his friends, male and female.
I am not aware of any significant ‘race issues’ that he would have been subjected to. His friends are all good kids, good South African children who, I have no doubt, are not less proud of being South African than is my son.
The future awaiting them
Now that they’re all going into adulthood and will face the real world of work, business, and other things that come with it, it seems unfair that my son will be separated from the boys and girls he grew up with and considered for special access to certain opportunities for the mere fact of being African.
I fear that this seemingly unfair treatment stands to create a gulf between my son and his good friends; and that they might attribute any success he might enjoy not to his intelligence, but to his skin colour. There will be jealousy and resentment.
Their generation will, again be polarised on the basis of skin colour and young white South Africans who should be staying to contribute in the building of this great country will feel less welcomed in their own homeland and be forced to seek opportunities abroad, taking their much-needed skills and passion with them. They stand to be lost to us all.
My fears are often highlighted during dinner conversations with white friends who, increasingly, seem to have given up on the possibility of their children building their lives in South Africa. They fear that this country will not allow them the opportunities they need, as citizens, to sit alongside their peers as equals, children of the rainbow nation.
At what point must we begin the difficult national discussion about a progressive introduction of sunset clauses for purely race-based access to opportunities for the children of our land? If we do not do this, is there no danger of us running a soft ‘constructive dismissal’ from economic opportunities of young white South Africans who should also be making us stand-out as a proud, diverse, and united nation?
I realise, of course, that such questions should probably not be asked before crucial elections. I also know that to have useful, constructive discussions of such sensitive topics, we need mature leadership that is not driven by emotion and the need to score electoral goals.
But, if not us, who? If not now, when?