John Simpson

Posted on June 3, 2013

Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Keith Somerville raised several important points in his review of John Simpson’s controversial coverage of white poverty in South Africa. As a former colleague at the BBC and a fellow research fellow at the Institute I respect his views and he makes some telling criticism of Simpson’s journalism. But at the heart of Keith Somerville’s argument is a presumption that it is somehow illegitimate to discuss the poverty into which many whites have now fallen.

Of course, these poor whites are in a minority. Most whites have continued to do very nicely, thank you. But why should this mean that the tens of thousands of whites living in squalor should be ignored?

The fact that “White household incomes are 7.5 times higher than black household incomes,” as Somerville puts it, tells us nothing about the conditions facing those whites who have fallen on hard times.

He goes on to argue that: “Black children are disadvantaged at birth by poverty, have less chance than even poor whites of getting education, and then are four times more likely than whites to be unemployed.” This is a curious mixture of assertion and assumption. Yes, black children who are poor are disadvantaged by poverty, but then so too are white children who are poor. Affluence allows for better education and better educational outcomes. This – in turn – allows whites (and increasingly the Indian population) to gain employment. But poverty is devastating for life-chances of all South Africans.

The problem with this perspective is that it is trapped in the apartheid view of South Africa. What are missing are the changes that have taken place since 1994. I have just returned from more than two months in the country. I spent much of the time at my old university – the University of Cape Town. What was evident was the vast improvement in the make-up of the students. When I was there in the late 1960’s and then in the 1970’s it was, essentially, a white institution. Today it is – happily – a mixed campus with South Africans of all colours interacting on the steps outside the Jameson hall, just as we did all those years ago.

The young students were a reflection of the growing black middle class that has emerged in recent years. They are confident, clever and keen to take their rightful places in society. It is estimated that the black middle class is now more than 4 million strong.

“South Africa’s black middle class continues to rapidly expand and is more influential and powerful than ever before,”

said John Simpson (no relation) of UCT’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing, when he released his findings in April.

The real question is what will happen to the young black graduates when they leave UCT. The answer is that because of the government’s policy of Black Economic Empowerment, they will almost certainly walk into the cream of the jobs. Their white counterparts will find their path to employment far less certain. For whites the top echelons of government and – increasingly – the private sector are barred. There is little room for “pale males” on the shortlists of the civil service or major corporations. Many young whites will, in the end become frustrated by the endless job search and opt for life abroad. If they remain they will quite possibly turn to consultancies or start their own businesses. Since most of these students will have been born, and certainly grown up, after apartheid was swept away, this is a tough pill to swallow.

Some find the path too hard. I had a friend whose son would have loved to serve in the South African army, but knew his chances of being promoted on merit were nil, since he was white. So he came and stayed with me for six weeks while he fought to be accepted in the British Army. Since then he has gone on to join the approximately 800 South Africans serving the UK across the world, with courage and distinction. How sad that the country of his birth could find no use for his abilities!

Class, rather than race, is an increasingly critical issue. When the nephew of the president and the grandson of Nelson Mandela can take over a gold mine; refuse to pay its workers for 18 months and asset-strip the company, they do so as rampant capitalists, not as blacks. While miners – black and white – were living in dire poverty and some committing suicide, these young men were donating a million Rand to the ANC’s election expenses. The miners had no illusions about what was going on, and few believe the ANC will come to their rescue. As Primrose Javu, a miner, put it to me when I interviewed her: “Khulubuse Zuma gave one million rand to the ANC. For what reason? He gave it to them just to shut [them] up!”

Perhaps the really worrying element is the undercurrent of black racism that is emerging in South Africa. The recent disgraceful behaviour by President Zuma’s Indian friends, the Guptas, in landing a plane at the Waterkloof air-force base without the permission of the authorities, has stoked this tendency.

A letter published in a respected paper – City Press – exemplified this trend. The correspondent argued that the Guptas should know their place. “First and foremost, you are an Indian and, contrary to what you believe and what you perhaps have been taught, South Africa is an African country with its land in its totality and proportion rightfully belonging to its indigenous African people.”

The author of these choice remarks, Phumlani Mfeka, was rightly criticised for his views. But the paper stood by its decision to publish them.

No doubt Mr Mfeka would have similar views about whites. It is worth recalling that Indians have been in the country for over 150 years. Whites have been South Africans for more than three centuries. Yet Mfeka can still espouse views that would do justice to the English Defence League if they were uttered in London, without batting an eyelid.

Once the ANC did more than just pay lip-service to the promise of the Freedom Charter that: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”

“South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.

Today that promise rings increasingly hollow. The ANC makes little effort to reflect the ‘rainbow nation’ that is South Africa. Its membership is now almost exclusively black African and its leadership has few whites among them. To state this is not to suggest that minorities are about to be driven into the sea, or to ignore the urgent need to tackle poverty, which is predominantly to be found among the black population. But John Simpson is right to raise the question of ‘poor whites’. It is a genuine issue and deserves a place in the much wider coverage of South Africa by the BBC.

Martin Plaut was the Africa Editor, BBC World Service News and worked for the BBC for 29 years.