OPINION

Save the wit ous

William Saunderson-Meyer |

08 April 2022

William Saunderson-Meyer on what the experience of Unterhalter, Arrie Rautenbach, and De Ruyter say about SA

JAUNDICED EYE

Three talented men, respected by their peers. All three were recently in the headlines. 

David Unterhalter, Arrie Rautenbach, and André De Ruyter. All three illustrate — in the judiciary, the private sector and the state sector — a troubling phenomenon, a country that is moving from racial redress to racial retribution. It’s no longer about the inclusion of the previously disadvantaged but the punitive exclusion of the formerly privileged. 

Like so many grand designs that produce squalid outcomes, this disastrous state of affairs comes from good intentions. In the late-1990s, when the African National Congress government started to apply its “transformation” mechanisms, based on gradations of skin hue, those at the apex of the old order — white men — suddenly found themselves at the very bottom of the new order.

This was wryly encapsulated in a riff on a ubiquitous bumper sticker of the time. This implored South Africans to save the rhino from extinction at the hands of poachers. The riposte read: “Never mind the rhino. Save the wit ou.”

What added unintentionally to the humour was that these white okes, on the whole, were managing far better than the lumbering rhino to evade their stalkers.

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Part of this was that most of the wit ous had come to terms with reality. There was a reluctant but widespread acceptance among whites that racial inclusion was not only a moral imperative but a matter of their and the country’s survival. They understood that unless all races were seated at the banquet, the table would eventually be upended. 

But it was also assumed by whites that the process would be based on two things. First, the table would be steadily enlarged to achieve a more equitable seating arrangement. Second, the white seats ceded would be by natural attrition and based on like-for-like substitution. In other words, no blanket exclusions and selection of black replacement would be based on ability, not cadre deployment and nepotism.

So, although the sun was setting, it appeared to be setting slowly. Historically high levels of education and experience gave whites, at least in the corporate world, some kind of protection. 

In the private sector, the emphasis was on upskilling, mentoring and replacing white expertise, as closely as was possible in an accelerated process, with equivalent black expertise. All, in turn, are further sliced and diced into correct portions of gender and disability.