• On board a slave-ship. Picture: iSTOCK IMAGES: WOOD ENGRAVING C18800

  • Shaka Zulu: Slavery, not Shaka, drover migrations? Picture: SUPPLIED

  • Sir John Cradock: Typified brutal racism under colonial rule. Picture: SUPPLIED

  • Jacob Zuma: The more you mock him the more you secure him. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

THERE were a thousand ways for a white South African to get into trouble as 2016 began. It took a KwaZulu Natal estate agent, Penny Sparrow, to fall into the trap. So casual, so nonchalant, so unconscious is her disdain for black South Africans that I guarantee you she never gave a nanosecond of thought to what she was doing when she posted, as her Facebook “status”, a message to her friends complaining that Durban’s beaches were full of black people, or, as she called them, “monkeys”.

The posting set off a firestorm of debate, accusation and counter-accusation as black and white South Africans turned on each other. Careers and reputations have been ruined. But Sparrow’s posting could have been made by any number of white people I know.

Her easy insult comes from deep down. She wouldn’t even know where or how it got there. But it is in her culture. And it is hard-wired into the culture of every South African of Western European descent. We call it racism and it is an often well-hidden conviction of black inferiority that dates back at least to medieval times.

In the 15th century Ferdinand and Isabella ran the (black) Moors out of Spain after they had ruled it with considerable success, helped by the Sephardic Jews of the time, for 700 years. The Christian horde chased them back over the Mediterranean and forced the Jews to convert to Catholicism. If they didn’t they were killed or forced into exile.

Catholic reign over Spain formalised in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus sailed down the Guadalquivir River near Seville on his way to “discover” the Americas. Long before that, Portuguese traders had rounded the big bulge in Africa and begun trading aggressively in West Africa, bringing spices home first in exchange for horses and then, as the voyages grew longer, for textiles. In 1472 gold was first traded in Ghana. That trade became so important to Lisbon that by the early 16th century 30,000 ounces of gold were reaching Portugal every year.

In his book Africa — A Biography of the Continent, the eminent Africa scholar John Reader notes that there was only so much cloth that the Akan people, who ruled the region at the time, could absorb. This forced the Portuguese to find something else to trade in, further along the coast — human beings. The Akan were expanding and needed labour to create farms and irrigation.

“Between 1500 and 1535 (the only period for which such records exist) they shipped 10,000 to 12,000 slaves across the Bight of Benin from the Slave Coast to the Gold Coast and sailed onward to Portugal with rich cargoes of gold, ivory, and pepper,” says Reader.

The fact that Africans were complicit in, first, selling the slaves to Europeans and, second, were also the initial buyers, doesn’t explain why slavery and the story of slavery plays so little part in the SA story today, in the debates and arguments we have. But there is no doubt that slavery, to at least as great a degree as colonial rule and apartheid, shaped what we have become.

Slavery is common in history and Africa has attracted more than its fair share of it. Arab conquerors in North Africa raided south into what we now call Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad for slaves. East Africa supplied slaves to Mesopotamia and Asia. Wealthy African families and clans raided neighbours for their own slaves.

Then the Europeans came to the game and, gradually, as the trans-Atlantic slave trade grew, slavers began to raid further down the coast, to Angola and Namibia. The first recorded slave trade in SA itself was in 1719, near Durban. But the fact that there were people there to trade was because they had been pushed south by the East African slave trade in the first place.

We simply do not know, but there are grounds to suspect that the southwards migration of Bantu peoples from East Africa was no natural movement. The menace and terror of slavery would have snapped at its heels every inch of the way.

Even in the 19th century, slave trading around what is now Maputo was so intense that historians take seriously the hypothesis that it was slavery, not war, that triggered the migrations we often now associate with almost mythical leaders like Shaka. It was slave-raiding, pressing from behind, that shoved the amaXhosa and the British into each other’s paths west (not neatly on the east bank as our fairy stories would have it) of the Fish River.

Africa’s “internal slave market”, to use Reader’s moniker, was one thing. The facts of what Europeans did to the slaves they transported across the Atlantic were quite another. Conservative estimates suggest that between 1451 and 1870, at least 12m African slaves were marched, in chains, onto English, Dutch, French and Portuguese ships, stuffed into lower decks like sardines to provide ballast for voyages up to three months long; lying chained in their own excreta and among their dead. Almost a million died on the way. It was, in every way imaginable, a genocide.

White South Africans who can’t understand why their black countrymen can’t simply get on with being free now should use their imaginations a little.

How terrifying it must have been to be an African child 500 years ago, hearing stories about men who took away your grandparents forever. Or your brothers and sisters. Nobody could say where. Not even distance from the coast protected you. You left your village at your peril. You stayed in your village at your peril. They were coming to get you, whatever you did and no matter how far south you and your family or your clan marched. You were a commodity, not a human. You’d be discarded when you were sick. Your friends would be forced to defecate in your mouth when you disobeyed.

Reader is emphatic on the power and influence of slavery inside SA itself: “The mere presence of settlers along the colonial frontier (the Fish River) was enough to intensify the disruptive effects spreading south from the Delagoa Bay (Maputo, slave) trade, but in the event their demands exacerbated the situation. The settlers were desperately short of labour, and attempts to meet their requirements included activities that only euphemistic terminology has disguised as anything other than slave trading.

“Many of the clashes which generations of historians have described as examples of black-on-black violence typifying an African propensity for warfare (and need for white peacemakers) were, in fact, slave-raids — conducted with the connivance of whites and producing a supply of so-called refugees from the fighting who were subsequently sold or given out as ‘apprentices’ to farmers in need of labour.”

Anything that happens over hundreds of years is hard to capture in a thought. But that is how cultures grow. They are made slowly and they are slowly undone. It took a thousand years after Jesus died for a Christian culture to show its hand. Cultures are an accumulation of memory and tradition, problem-solving and belief.

It is by now a part of Afrikaner culture that the Anglo-Boer War, which lasted less than three years and ended more than 100 years ago, was a scarring, brutalising and defining event which to this day drives Afrikaners, as a people, to seek a place or a circumstance where they can be free and be themselves.

It is part of British culture that the First and Second World Wars were pivotal moments in history in which they star as the defenders of liberty against fascism or tyranny. The end of each is wildly commemorated each year. Jets fly overhead. The Queen appears on the balcony. Together, those wars lasted 10 years. They will define the British for centuries.

So if South Africans of European descent can’t forget what are fleeting moments in history, whatever the well-documented hardships of the Afrikaner and the suffering of the British under German bombs, why should Africans forget almost 700 years of justifiable fear and loathing of Europeans, as slavers, colonialists and segregationists? Why are white people surprised when blacks react badly to racial insult?

Penny Sparrow wouldn’t have had Sir John Cradock, one of the many British governors of the Cape, in mind when she complained on Facebook about the “monkeys” on the beach. But it was Cradock who reported, in 1812 after a brutal campaign to expel the amaXhosa out of the Zuurveld and back east of the Fish, that: “I am happy to add that in the course of this service there has not been shed more Kaffir blood than would seem necessary to impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect.”

I know of no instance where black Africans have treated Europeans or the descendants of Europeans the way whites have treated Africans. I know the Khoisan, the people who were here first, might disagree, but I am certain that the broad generalisation can be made that black South Africans are not racist.

Sure, blacks are angry about the racism — be it soft or hard, subtle or Sparrow-esque — they face daily. But that anger, however chillingly expressed on occasion, cannot itself be racist. Affirmative action cannot possibly be, as it is often called, racism in reverse. When the British bombed German cities in retaliation for the German raids on London, did that make Churchill a Nazi?

Racism is the result of a conviction of racial superiority, accumulated and moulded over time, among people of the same race, with reference to another race. Does that make all white South Africans racist? Are we all Sir John Cradock?

Of course not. The point about culture is that it changes and that individuals can make a huge difference. Out of the same poisonous culture that produced a John Cradock come people who today lead the fight for gay rights, for women’s rights, around the world, even in places where to fight for those rights is dangerous. The same culture that gorged itself on slavery also produced the people who had it abolished. But we whites underestimate at our peril the seeds of a range of appalling behaviours that our culture has bequeathed us.

Other races may have slaved in Africa but they are not our problem here. Our specific problem is that for approaching 700 years, European contact with Africa has brought to the vast majority of Africans nothing but misery.

That is what the liberation struggles throughout Africa were about, even if slavery was an unconscious memory. It mattered, and those 700 years sure as hell matter here, in SA, now. South Africans should study slavery more than they do. It is the most base expression of racism. You cannot commercialise human beings you respect. Not now and not 500 years ago.

In SA today, we cannot undo the past. But we have a unique opportunity to make a future here together, something a bit special.

There are problems. Galactic poverty. Biblical inequality. We are led by a weak man and a divided ruling party. Racial divisions, once healing, are again open wounds. What we do has to be thoughtful and done with immaculate attention to detail. Corruption and poor public administration make no conceivable remedy feasible.

We have first to properly identify our problems. If we do not we will apply the wrong “solutions”. Is poverty a bigger problem than inequality? Each invites a specific remedy. Is racist speech the same thing as hate speech? No. Europeans and Africans alike are equally capable of hate speech. Is enmity between black tribes not a form of black racism? No, it is ethnic rivalry, like the rivalry between Kosovans and Serbs.

The only way two sides get over a bad past is to fix their future together. The best way to express that in SA has to lie, somehow, in the economy and in the way we create and distribute wealth. A potent and inclusive SA economy needs to have three main characteristics:

• It would need to make profits that the state can tax and use to pay for services to the poor;

• It would need to create much higher levels of formal employment; and

• Barriers of entry into the economy would need to be low, to encourage competition.

What has to go is the capitalist model we employ now. It is, in principle, not that much changed from the capitalism that drove slavery or from the Victorian model that people like Cecil John Rhodes brought with them to SA.

But to change it the state has to be on top of its game. Until now, it has chosen merely to replicate, in different colours, the economy it inherited from apartheid. The results are in the job statistics.

It doesn’t work.

For a new economy of our own we could look to the theory of stakeholder capitalism. It has the profit motive at its centre but surrounds that imperative with possibilities for a new SA economic culture within which the state and the private sector make major contributions.

At some stage the much-discussed but never congregated Economic Codesa will have to be held. The reason people avoid it is the risk of it getting out of control. But a new economic compact has to be hammered out around which all, or most, South Africans can agree.

We need consensus. Only from consensus can you begin to build trust.

We can’t “fix” the past, though properly managed land reform and black economic empowerment offer a modicum of justice. But it is what we do to move forward, together, that will define us. A mess is always a good place to start.

It was out of the mess of post-war Germany and post-war Japan that the victorious Allies were able to fashion economic and social models that made it difficult, if not impossible, for the excesses of German Nazism or Japanese nationalist fanaticism to hold sway again over powerful economies.

German companies, listed or not, are today required to have union representation on their boards. The Allies did that. They called it mitbestimmung (co-decision-making). It means the unions get the same board packs, the same information and at the same time, that the shareholders on the board do. They know when there’s trouble. German companies also, by tradition, always have a representative of their main bank on the board. We should legislate both of these here as a matter of urgency.

My Economic Codesa would also agree on a wide range of efforts designed to ensure that we create wealth in as inclusive a way as possible. And we must encourage more long-term thinking in our approach to investment, while appreciating that many foreign investors are attracted to our markets because they can move their money in and out quickly.

Our open markets are a huge strength, even though it can be scary when money leaves SA.

Stakeholder capitalism is what it says it is. You’ll find strong evidence of it in the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for November’s US presidential election. It seeks to find ways to guarantee inclusivity, which anyone with half a brain in SA today can see is our vital missing ingredient. Even Julius Malema has begun to talk like a stakeholder capitalist as he cajoles companies into taking better care of, and account of, their workers.

Companies, now with the union on the board, should also reserve at least 15% of their shares (listed or not) for employees. Treasury would find ways to reward those who do more. Equally, companies that employ more people over a period should be rewarded by the taxman. Companies that create jobs in poor and/or rural areas should be encouraged by the revenue service.

Too many chief executives in SA and elsewhere become distracted by market demands for short-term performance. Share incentive schemes can often mean that calls to cut jobs or other capacity are made too quickly. Our Codesa would encourage shareholders to stay in the share, rather than sell at the slightest hint of trouble. The dividends on shares held in an SA listed company for more than five years should attract only nominal dividends tax. After 10 years there shouldn’t be any dividends tax at all. We need CEOs with their eyes on their businesses and company, not on fund managers.

The more open (democratic, even) SA business becomes, the safer it will be. I think an old idea from the 1990s still has merit. I first heard it from former Times Media boss Stephen Mulholland. Others say it was originally former Standard Bank CEO Jacko Maree’s idea. But if all the companies on the JSE were voluntarily to raise their issued capital by just 1% each (no shareholder meeting required and, anyway, the markets can move more than that in a day) they could raise around R100bn in a stroke.

Not possible, say sceptics. But a R100bn pool run by unpaid private sector trustees with no political interference would be a hugely powerful statement if it was used to help poor people.

It would reassure foreign investors they were not betting on a political economy on the edge and reassure South Africans that the private sector was making a visible contribution to their future.

But the state also has a vital part to play in this stakeholder economy of the future. It cannot continue to reproduce Victorian capitalism in a black skin. First of all it needs to ensure that the country is, literally, owned by the people. The government is simply there to manage it for them.

A mass privatisation drive that gives each citizen vouchers in all of the state’s assets — Eskom, Transnet, SAA (though shares in SAA might be reserved as a special punishment for certain groups of people) and hundreds of other state-owned companies and properties would be bundled up into these vouchers — would be a given. Citizens could collect dividends, hold managements to account and sell all or some of their vouchers after a certain period. It would have to be illegal for any one group or person to surreptitiously accumulate control of a state asset. The state would manage the assets and account to the people as executives would to shareholders.

Democratising land ownership would be critical. A way would need to be found for people living on tribal land to fully own, and trade or leverage should they wish, what they live on.

The state would also offer all citizens a choice upon their turning 21. They would be allocated a parcel of land (serviced with water and electricity and road access) of, say, half a hectare, or they could take a sum of money, paid directly to them. Call it R50,000, and the beneficiary does what he or she likes with it. The state would claw both the land value or the cash sum from the recipient’s estate upon their death.

The state commits itself to a debt ceiling beyond which it cannot legally go and it creates a sovereign wealth fund to invest in foreign assets for the benefit of future generations. It commits to investing a minimum amount a year for 25 years and does not spend any of it until the 25 years are up.

Any Economic Codesa, especially one designed to begin repairing our spectacular racial wounds, would be hotly contested. There would be a million demands. But if we were able to keep our eye on the prize — a prosperous country for our children to grow up in — it would be worth it.

Essays like this, I know, don’t make many friends in SA. It is a dangerous place to have an idea in. But I can’t bear where we are. As much as I disapprove of the way Jacob Zuma runs the country, I can’t bear him being taunted for the number of wives or children he has, or the fact that he read a number out wrong. Or that he isn’t “educated”.

I can’t bear watching my fellow South Africans trade the most egregious insults about black people on social media or the growing swell of deeply angry and often violent black social media reaction to it. Technology should make us happy. In SA it makes us miserable.

I can’t bear watching my fellow white South Africans not recognise what racism looks and sounds like, nor what black anger in return looks like and too many white people not knowing the difference between the two. Who will fix this? Who can?

Part of the problem is that we are led by not so much a visionary as a distracted and self-obsessed president who cannot unite us because his life has led him elsewhere.

But the bigger problem is ourselves. No-one won the war. Our democracy was negotiated, not dictated. Whites came to the table because sanctions were hurting their pockets. Blacks came because they couldn’t win militarily. The result was always going to be messy.

That mess, as I have said, is now our opportunity. To the revolutionaries among us, my deepest regrets but there is no way you are going to be allowed by the domestic or international community to turn us into another Venezuela. The more the Chinese invest here, the more careful they will be with their money. The Chinese played a key role, I’m told, in persuading the president to reverse his appointment of David Des van Rooyen as finance minister last month.

To those to the right (of me) I say: the more you mock and jeer at Jacob Zuma the more you secure him. The majority of people in SA will instinctively protect someone under racial attack. Just listen to yourselves sometimes.

It was always a long and inhuman way from Delagoa Bay to the cane fields of Brazil, shackled below deck in a sailing ship. And it has been an even longer way back, for slave and slaver. Let us please not stuff this up.