Departure and Displacement: Leaving the Public Service

Race is back on the table hiding behind the fig leaf of transformation

Continuing our focus on Human Rights at The Journalist a prominent writer and academic reflects on his personal experience to pick at the scabs in the fractures of our nationhood. While many ‘coloured’ people schooled in the BC Movement do not have an appetite for the politics of race and identity it comes marching down your throat in many guises.

At the end of March I will walk out of the Secretariat of the National Planning Commission for the last time. I will have concluded almost four years of dedication to the National Development Plan. It has been a privilege to work on the NDP. Not many people are given the opportunity to do something meaningful for society. I was given the opportunity, twice; first as a journalist, over about 14 years, and then as a public servant. As I start clearing my desk at the NPC the sense of displacement, an overwhelming feeling that I just don’t belong is increasing. I also have a sense of fear for the future of South Africa… I will write about fear at another time.

Displacement is sometimes easier to feel and understand, than it is to explain. You know it when you feel it. It is, in part, a feeling that you are out of place and do not belong. It is, quite often internal (I try not to blame others for my shortcomings) but displacement can also be driven by external forces, through a range of discursive practices, where one’s sense of self, of identity and of belonging is constantly being framed by identity brokers. These brokers are people who forge their professional and intellectual positions in society by telling white-skinned or brown-skinned people, women, men, Jews, Muslims or Christians, what they can or cannot do; what they may, or may not say. Under somewhat less toxic conditions, identity-formation is helped along, as it were, by teachers, prelates and our childhood peers. I grew up in a ‘coloured’ township, I was educated in a ‘coloured’ school, and we believed – before I affiliated myself with the Black Consciousness movement – that we were ‘coloured’.

What has been quite dispiriting over the past four years is the way in which South African politics has been re-racialised. After more than two decades of being mildly satisfied that we have placed the crude politics of race behind us, I am, once again, a ‘coloured’. This re-racialisation, behind the figleaf of transformation, has become too high a priority in our politics.

It is in the public service that I heard things like. ‘You are not a white, you are not a black. You are just nothing’. It was in the public service, also, where I first heard the line: ‘There are too many Indians and not enough chiefs’. We are back then to an admixture of social ordering and crude profiling based on the politics of exclusion. As with race, because some of us might think there is no such thing a ‘race’ does not mean there are no racists; we might not believe the rubbish about being coloured, it does not mean, however, that we are not categorised or classified and othered as ‘coloured’.

Fealty to the Ruling Party

What is probably more tragic, for its systemic threats, and the inter-generational fall-out, is how little priority is given to skills, professional conduct, inter-personal relations, to the most basic ability to write or communicate effectively, to honesty and integrity. There are times, it seems that little more than an oath of fealty to the ruling party is required to succeed in South Africa. It certainly helps, of course, if you’re not ‘coloured’.

I have been made aware, directly and indirectly, that I am ‘not an African’ – the subtext being that I don’t belong. Africa, as it is said, ‘belongs to Africans’. As one smug and corpulent cadre, emboldened it seemed by her position as an insider, told me, I was ‘not an African,’ and that the President of the United States, Barack Obama was. ‘That is why we must support him’. Another cadre criticised South Africa’s Ambassador to Washington: ‘How can that Indian criticise Obama,’ he said, before getting into his Mercedes Benz and driving off.

Like the time I was called ‘amper-baas’ as a kid, and beaten up because I looked white (whenever I excelled at anything at school, I was beaten up), in the political order that followed apartheid my fair skin and green eyes have again been the cause of extreme othering. Wherever I went, across the country, and spoke about the need to implement the NDP, and generally do the job we, as public servants, were being paid to do, there were whispers: ‘Is this guy white, or coloured’. Sometimes these conversations would be held within hearing distance, in one of the indigenous languages I am familiar with. Sometimes my skin colour would be the butt of jokes – among public servants! Once, I was dismissed (along with “Model Cs”) as some kind of arriviste with no claim to any kind of understanding or insight into the political economy of South Africa. In a moment of weakness (I never claim any credit for being part of the liberation movement), I explained that my education was disrupted in the mid-1970s, and that being the middle-child of a nine-person family in Eldorado Park came with its own difficulties. Just getting the education I craved would take me more than three decades…. Laughter filled the room. Peculiar handshakes and fist pumps affirmed my status as an outsider…

As I leave the NPC and public service, I have no delusions of grandeur. My role in the NDP was small, and probably inconsequential. To me, however, it remains one of the best contributions I have made to South Africa. It is especially important, at least to me, because I am not a cadre of the ruling party. I told President Mandela this in 1994, when he first asked me to work for them. He said he liked me, and respected me. That was then…. In the lexicon of the re-racialised South Africa, I am a ‘coloured’ which places me, again, as a lesser person in a society that pretends to treat everyone equally, but reproduces instability, distrust and different rules for different people. In the words of Gwede Mantashe, some of us ‘minorities’ have to make extra sure that we work harder to achieve anything.


When I dedicated my life to journalism more than three decades ago, after an exceedingly difficult time trying to make ends meet in various jobs, it was because of the a strong sense of commitment to justice. In the Secretariat of the NPC, I continued that commitment. This commitment has never been based on the personal quest to become rich, but to create a society that was just, equitable, prosperous, stable and with high levels of trust among the population. Leaving the NPC, I cannot with absolute certainty say that we will have a better country, tomorrow or the next day, but we sure as hell cannot stop fighting for it – or leave it to the 2014 Class Project.

We can start by not confusing ambition with achievement. We can, also, start by accepting, as a former colleague, Tim du Plessis told me in 1993 – with specific reference to the Afrikaners – democracy means you can, sometimes be wrong, and lose elections, and that you have to understand that shared prosperity is often better than exclusivity. Creating a better society should, necessarily, include everyone.

The NDP is only a plan. To make sure it works, or any other plan, for that matter, we can start by placing the elimination of poverty, inequality, injustice and instability as a first order priority – and not an upgrade to the latest ‘C Class’ or a new ‘three series’. This is the least we owe successive next generations of South Africans – all South Africans.