Report back: Roundtable on Equity and Redress

The first 2014 Roundtable on Equity and Redress took place on February 6th. The event was chaired by the director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, Francis Antonie, and featured Lindiwe Mazibuko, Songezo Zibi and Eusebius McKaiser. This brief summarises some of the main themes of the evening.
The Roundtable explored whether liberalism can address racial and economic redress and equity and, furthermore, how it can be done. The audience was asked to consider the validity of a widely accepted view that liberalism cannot attempt to solve the problems of poverty and inequality. In this view liberalism and free market economies culminate in social and economic inequality. The Chair argued that this conception is incorrect and that liberalism can provide the means for societies to address socio-economic and racial inequalities. He proposed that if liberalism were to be true to its core values, and by including each member of society as possessing the same rights for opportunities, and advancing these opportunities, then liberalism could address poverty and inequality. 

The Speakers

The opening speaker, Lindiwe Mazibuko, emphasized the importance of acknowledging our past and how it influences our present. She stressed the profoundly inequitable ratio of black and white people in the business place, access to education, access to running water and electricity etc. to illustrate that race is deeply and directly linked to poverty and inequality.  She urged that racial redress and equity should be at the forefront of our thinking. She went as far as to say that South Africa is more unequal today than it was 1994. Mazibuko asked for equality to be continuously promoted and advanced and believes that this can be achieved through well-thought out and effectively executed policies and legislation. She promoted the type of policies that advance equality in a positive manner and that do not use punitive measures. She looked forward to a South Africa where the road to equality is paved with incentives, not punishments and spoke of a future South Africa where colour does not matter. She argued the Democratic Alliance’s claims that total equality free of any biological or genetic qualifier will afford opportunities to all people. Mazibuko also argued that education is a vital part of eradicating disadvantages and is in need of immediate reformation so as to afford high levels of education to all South Africans. Her hope is that through transforming education, inequality in education that leads to unequal opportunities, often advancing freedom only for the privileged, will cease to be a feature of this country.
On the topic of redress, Songezo Zibi reiterated the issue of race-based inequality in South Africa and stated that the improvements of the last twenty years are not sufficient. He highlighted the need to reconsider whether our methods used to alleviate inequality have been premised on the right ideals. He recommended that we reconsider our tactics and perhaps rethink on what we are basing our hypotheses.
Zibi proposed that we can change laws as much as we would like, but that this will not change people’s hearts. For him, it is people more so than laws that are at the heart of inequality. He encouraged us to look at patterns of injustice based on race in order to understand the cause for such persisting inequality. Only once we understand can we take proper measures in redressing the issues. He warns us against placing our whole focus on racial redress and not to lose sight of other causes of inequality such as gender or sexual preference. Zibi argued that we cannot claim we are trying to be moral by firmly tackling issues of race and subsequently ignoring other aspects of our immorality such as sexism or homophobia and that we require a commonly agreed upon sense of justice as a foundation for the way in which we tackle redress.
He stressed that the biggest threat to redress is lack of economic growth, stating that if the pie is not grown, we will end up fighting for the crumbs. Zibi made the observation that real freedom comes from individuals being able to be themselves and that those who are better off must always seek means to include those who are on the margins. 
Eusebius McKaiser agreed with the previous speakers about the multiple challenges that face South Africa. He offered the view that of all of our interwoven and individually important challenges - such as inequality, education etc. – equity is not given enough weight. He too argued openly for liberalism being able to tackle issues of inequality and equity. He stated that those with means must care about equality, not through pity but rather through self-preservation. As he put it “they’re going to come after your bottles of chardonnay if you don’t care about equality”.
For McKaiser, the way people identify themselves is a basis for how they experience the world. He believes that this identity shapes the way in which we experience everyday life and cannot be separated from the world we perceive.  He identified a racial self-identity that is impossible to escape and criticized Mazibuko for her views that race is an identity that can be overcome and should not determine how we see ourselves. McKaiser held that race is part of a person’s lived experience, especially in South Africa, and that we cannot separate it from our identity.  He went further to say that it is not only race, but our socio-economic status that is a part of our self-identity. Economic inequality causes people to live completely different kinds of lives and have widely contrasted lived experiences, making it difficult for people to relate to one another. For McKaiser, there are not many areas in which these individuals can relate. 
In terms of economic and racial inequality that stem from South Africa’s past discrimination, compensation to groups of previously disadvantaged people should be among the natural order of progression towards equity. He believes that we must be able to favour black and coloured people for positions in schools and jobs with no sense of guilt over the balance required to attain equal opportunities for all in the future.  For McKaiser this is an important part of redress and is morally justified within the context of South Africa. 

The Audience

The floor was opened to the audience and a lively discussion about our present situation followed. Audience members expressed views that ranged from race no longer being a substantial cause for inequality, to race-based attempts at redress being unfair to white people, to race being the cause of all inequality and a precursor for inequalities based on education, housing, access to food and water, job opportunities, respect in positions of power and socio-economic status. People expressed contrasting views about the way in which race still dictates our lives and it was generally accepted that far more must be done in order to address race and inequality in South Africa.


The three speakers featured a variety of views. The many comments by audience members confirmed the argument that each individual’s lived experience shapes the way in which he/she views their country, issues of race, inequality and themselves. The evening proved to be a great step towards learning about where South Africans perceive we stand as a nation and where we need to be. What was also clear is that issues of Equity and Redress are still predicated on Identity Politics. How we transcend the latter will determine how we may be able to address the former.
Amy Meyer
Helen Suzman Foundation