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South Africans “debate” race in new cabinet

Appointments in South Africa’s new cabinet have opened up a crude discourse about race and the definition of ‘black’ or ‘African’ and reveal the socio-political failure to leave the apartheid baggage behind



The most depressing feature of the new South African cabinet is not the increase in size nor the controversy over who was appointed or left out. This is predictable and monotonous in that the cabinet has – with 73 ministerial and deputy posts – always been perceived to be too big, and the infighting within the governing party was expected to have casualties, i.e. those who belong to the allegedly wrong faction.

Rather, what was most depressing was the animated but superficial media-driven debate and discussions on who is ‘black’ and who is not in the cabinet.

The appointment of Nhlanhla Nene as the third Minister of Finance has opened up a crude discourse about race and the definition of ‘black’ or ‘African’ that reveals of the socio-political failure to leave the apartheid baggage behind.

This failure to think positively about the new identity of South Africanness was revealed in the redeployment of Pravin Gordhan to another department – Cooperative Governance & Traditional Affairs – while his former deputy Nene was elevated to the position of the new minister of finance.


President Jacob Zuma’s redeployment of Gordhan and his appointment of Nene has caused celebration in what could mistakenly be described as the indigenous section of the population known as African. While Nene is African, Gordhan is of Indian descent and has served the liberation movement and the country to the best of his abilities before and after the demise of apartheid.

Former Minister of Finance Pravin Gordham, now Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs

Former Minister of Finance Pravin Gordham, now Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs

A nation in the making
All of a sudden, the ultimate rise of Nene has been greeted as a resounding victory by a large section of the indigenous people as marking the crowning of African talent to strategic leadership positions. Some people had the nerve to accuse the ANC government of succumbing to market forces, the international corporate and business partners and white racism by being over-cautious in the appointment of an indigenous African as a finance minister. The treasury has, wrongly, been regarded or perceived as a no-go area for an African minister. But this perception and attitude reduces the well deserving Nene to a token appointment and denies the fact that he has been groomed for this position and is perhaps the most qualified candidate to succeed Gordhan. He has a distinguished record of being more than an ANC deployee as he has worked in the department of finance for over ten years and served as a deputy for Gordhan throughout his term. His performance and contribution in the department has supplemented and supported his boss in making the department one of the most respected in government.

The very fact that some people could publicly say on social and other media that no black person has been appointed as a finance minister insults the history, identity, self-definition and performance of former Minister Trevor Manuel and, of course, Gordhan as authentic blacks through experience and, at the same time, perpetuates apartheid division based on race and ethnicity. The point here is not simply that both Manuel and Gordhan have fought against apartheid and its baggage but have always defined themselves as Africans who belong to this country. For anyone to challenge their identity as blacks or suggest that they are not Africans undermines the tenets of the constitution that espouses equality and non-racialism.

Also, to single out and highlight the ethnic identity of Nene not only violates constitutional principles but undermines his integrity as a professional and suggests that he was not appointed on merit but because of his colour or ethnic identity.

As citizens of a new nation in the making the raging media-driven debate reveals that there are far more people who pursue a divisive agenda that promotes separation based on race. After 20 years the people must begin to show signs that they are ready to embrace each other as equal fellow citizens who do not judge each other on phenology or race. In fact, the Development Indicators to measure social cohesion indicate that more than 50% of the population describes itself as South African and does not include race or tribe as a self-descriptor.

Of course, some will always agree that colour-blindness is a denial of racism and its legacy in South Africa but we have to recognize merit and progress where it exists. This country belongs to all who live in it.


There should be no double standards in how we wish to define ‘blackness’ as espoused by Steve Biko or the redefinition of Africanness as postulated by Thabo Mbeki in his seminal I am an African speech. The valid ideological argument is that in the fight against apartheid, Manuel, Gordhan and Nene were all classified black and were equally crowned as Africans at the adoption of the new constitution of the republic in 1996.

The whole brouhaha and allegations over who is black and who is not does not chime well with the principles and ideals in our most renowned constitution in the world. The government has just elevated nation-building and social cohesion to a priority and this entails fighting all forms of racism and other forms of discrimination. In fact, we should be more than concerned that there are not enough people whose thinking, attitude and perception of fellow citizens is not aligned to the constitution. It is time to popularise and educate all our people about what being South African truly means.

How did we get in this bind?
How did we get in this bind? Why do many people want to draw a distinction between Manuel, Gordhan and Nene? First, we must admit that there are still tension among the different ethnic groups. There is widespread perception, especially in the indigenous African community, that so called Coloured and Indians still benefit more that Africans in the new dispensation. Not enough has been done to resolve this complex relationship.

Secondly, indigenous people still desire to see more Africans placed as strategic leadership positions that will entrust them with responsibility that bolster confidence and trust in African talent. There are still many Africans, especially in the corporate world, that hold token positions and this generates and reveals deep seated self-hatred among Africans. Presumably, it is only when Africans see their own wield real power where it matters most that they will believe transformation is taking place. They say perception is everything in South Africa.


Third, we need practical programmes that will promote social cohesion among the previously disadvantaged from all race/ethnic groups to help build trust and bolster confidence among those who have been psychologically damaged by apartheid, that is, so called Coloured, Indians and Africans. It would seem that after 20 years of democracy and freedom, there are far too many people who are still lost in the thicket of racial obsession.

As former ANC president Oliver Tambo said: we dream of a South Africa where there will be no black or white but just citizens. The realisation of that dream begins with how we see each other.