Arguing About Race in South Africa

A rare public debate between two top government officials puts the spotlight on the relationship between blacks and "coloureds."

Jimmy Manyi and Trevor Manuel (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

In South Africa, a raging debate is under way about race, an issue that has never stopped simmering since the black-led government came to power, but which is mostly unattended and sometimes reaches the boiling point and, like now, boils over (not unlike in America since the end of slavery).

The ingredient that sparked it in South Africa this time was an open letter written by Trevor Manuel, one of the top officials in the government of the ruling African National Congress. The act was a highly unusual departure, since rarely do ANC members and officials air their grievances in public, although in recent months some of the members of the tripartite alliance that makes up the ANC -- the so-called broad church of leftists, middle-of-the-roaders and others -- have become increasingly vocal and critical of their partners in government. But that's another story.

This one is about what Manuel, currently minister of national development, said and why; what ANC Cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi said and why; and how they have ignited memories of South Africa's recent, dark past, when the white minority government divided South Africa's people into three categories: white, black and coloured (as it is spelled in South Africa, referring to people of mixed race) -- the dividing line, as in the pre-civil rights U.S. South, determined mostly by appearance. Those characterizations were eliminated on paper, when a new constitution was written after the black-led government came to power, though they are still used in some cases, including in census-data collection.

Manuel's long letter, published in a Sunday newspaper, was in response to remarks that Manyi made a year ago but that have just come to light. In one, Manyi quipped that Indians -- who have some 5.9 percent of management positions and should, he said, have only 3 percent -- have "bargained their way to the top."

But those words followed closely on his statement that coloureds in the Western Cape area of the country are "over-concentrated" and should look for work elsewhere. The Western Cape, by the way, is the only one of the country's 11 provinces where the ANC local authorities are not in control.

And at the moment, there is a bill pending in Parliament that would amend a 1998 employment act requiring employers to align their workforces with the "demographic profile of the national and regional economically active population." The proposed amendment deletes the words "national" and "regional," but President Zuma insists the changes would not conflict with the constitution or the nonracial ethos and foundation of South Africa. In an attempt to reassure the coloured community, the president added that the proposed change would improve their job prospects rather than make them difficult.

The ruling ANC party also weighed in, insisting that proposed legislation was aimed at countering white domination and "not to create tensions between black, coloured and Indian South Africans." But, as one newspaper put it, "Confusion reigns over ANC jobs law," and among others, the South African Institute of Race Relations wasn't buying the president's reassurances, insisting that coloured and Indian jobs would be at risk under the proposed changes in the jobs law.

Manuel, a highly regarded former finance minister who identifies as black but who, under apartheid (and still, in the minds of many), would have been classified as coloured, was infuriated by Manyi's comments. Hence the open letter that brooked no restraint, telling Manyi in the opening paragraph to "forget for now that I am a cabinet minister and that you are a director-general [of the Department of Labor] equivalent in the same government," and explaining that he is addressing him as "a compatriot South African." He argues that Manyi's comments are "against the spirit of the South African constitution."

As the furor built, Manyi offered an apology, saying, "Some people have taken offense," but even that further infuriated Manuel, who argued that Manyi failed "to appreciate the extent to which your utterances are both unconstitutional and morally reprehensible." Manuel goes on to state that Manyi's statements "reduce people to being mere commodities ... who are the sons and daughters of those who waged the first anti-colonial battles against the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British when they set foot on our shores," and "who made huge sacrifices in the struggle against apartheid, at a time when people with views like Jimmy Manyi were conspicuous by their absence from the misery of exile, the battles at the barricades and from apartheid's jails.

"By the way," Manuel continues, "what did you do in the war, Jimmy?" Manuel then characterizes Manyi's comments as in the mold "of H.F. Verwoerd" -- one of South Africa's prime ministers during the oppressive era of white minority rule.