EVERY year schoolteachers collect information on children by race and activity. Some bureaucrat somewhere could presumably tell you the number of coloured chess players, African cricketers, Indian choristers and white dancers in our schools. If this does not shock and surprise you, it should appal in a country upon which so much damage has been inflicted in the name of race-based ideology. The very idea of the collection of racial statistics in twenty-first century, post-liberation South Africa is an absurdity, laughable but also tragic. The Population Registration Act, one of the central pillars of apartheid, was repealed in the 1990s and consigned to the dustbin of history where it rightly belongs. But in an act of supreme cynicism its spirit has been recycled.

Intriguingly, as we no longer have government bureaucrats telling us to which group we belong, we are purely and simply whom we say we are − a very healthy state of affairs. There is no way of avoiding this unless an enumerator makes a subjective judgement based on appearance or some other superficial factor to override an individual’s self-perception; or we go back to something like the infamous pencil test. Of course none of this Orwellian futility would matter were it not for the fact that racial statistics are collected for the clear purpose of social engineering. In the past, South African life histories were determined by racial identity assigned by civil servants. In the new South Africa, destiny may be the outcome of self-declared group identification, hardly a major step in the long march of democracy.

This has come about through a policy called equity (euphemism and deception continue to rule) which rates transformation on the basis of ranked group identity. This was fine while everyone, bar the dispensable white male, was granted equal preference but when the relative value of a coloured woman, a physically challenged Indian and an African man has to be sorted out, it all becomes a lot more complicated, and infinitely less popular with the losers. The aim, we are told, is to ensure that institutions reflect the demographic proportionality of the environment around them, although no one has yet defined the boundaries. Even if we accept that this is a valid way upon which to organise society, rather than more relevant factors like ability and experience, who decides when the overall goal has been achieved; and who continues to police its maintenance? It will require a cohort of commissars with the mentality that served the apartheid state only too well, people who wield enormous political and administrative power but who cling to a long-redundant vision of themselves as victims.

Nations in which group identity is valued more highly than individual worth are fragile indeed. Mass differentiation is conflict waiting to happen and the consequences of that are plain to see throughout human history. Where the dividing lines are termed racial the dangers are compounded because race as a biological and anthropological phenomenon is invalid: it inevitably falls back on social factors because so many people are unclassifiable as a result of inter-marriage. As Kader Asmal explained in Cape Town on Youth Day 2000, there is just one race, the human race; echoing historical ANC denunciations of discrimination between people on the grounds of appearance. Race is a cultural myth seized upon by those who wish for their own nefarious purposes to divide societies and de-individualise those who belong to them. Ethnicity on the other hand is a valid concept, but its boundaries are fluid: and its determinants such as language, religion and culture are all capable of assimilation so it cannot be used by Social Darwinists with mad theories about group survival and the fittest.

All societies are being repeatedly transformed – there is nothing specifically South African about this. But if it is to succeed it must be rooted organically in society, although there are many legitimate ways of speeding up the process. The crude imposition of vulgar racial proportionality will be as disastrous for South Africa in the future as apartheid was in the past. As a Mail & Guardian editorial put it so well three years ago, ‘Surely, if we South Africans have learned anything, it is the destructive effect of racism – in particular the waste of talent and of potential which it represents’. If we succumb to the good old South African obsession with supposed race we shall never extricate ourselves from the mediocrity created by apartheid. Ultimately we can move forward productively only on the basis of individual worth and the attitudes, aptitudes, qualities, skills and potential of each human being. It is futile to see people primarily as representatives of groups: each person is a complex individual with an ethnic identity.

The application of racial criteria to the field of education is particularly misguided. Nearly twenty years ago universities fought the Quota Bill on the grounds that academic integrity was being undermined, that race as an educational criterion was repugnant and offensive, and that whatever outcome might be achieved it would occur as a result of racism. The system of which this formed a part was denounced as theological heresy and a crime against humanity. Yet today some of the same people who quite correctly shouted loudly about the iniquities of racist ideology turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the consequences of legislation based on racial categorisation. There has been an extraordinary abdication of moral responsibility.

This article was first published in The Witness on 30 October 2002 and entitled ‘The re-racialisation of South African society’