South Africans are burdened by a lot of strange laws. Perhaps those around black economic empowerment are the strangest of all. The name of the legislation sounds wonderful, but a number of people, some black, have told me that in their world BEE stands for black elite enrichment.
Under apartheid a number of bad laws collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity. Whether that will be allowed to happen in the case of BEE laws only time will tell. So far it has been been very good for a very small cadre of government leaders. They are trying very hard to justify these laws and keep the unearned money coming.
In apartheid days the Group Areas Act fell apart because of one brave lady and one principled judge, as well as the sheer pressure of money. In the 1950s, central Johannesburg, an area reserved for whites, held a lot of apartment dwellings that were all occupied by white people. When the 1960s, then 1970s and a relatively affluent society arrived, the people who had occupied the apartments found pleasanter homes in the suburbs, and the inner city apartments fell empty. For the landlords, investments that had been sound were now loss makers. They became desperate. Empty buildings still had to be cared for and rates to be paid, but they brought in no revenue. In the meantime coloured, Indian and black townships were overcrowded and their excess people were eager to move into the empty dwellings in the city.
It was situation that lasted for some years. Then into this scenario came the unlikely person of a Miss Govender, a spinster lady of Indian extraction and no political affiliation. Somehow she contrived to buy a house in the white working class suburb of Mayfair. “But…” a Johannesburg City Council official informed her, “don’t even think about moving into that house. You’re not white and you may not live in a white area.”
Miss Govender was in for a bit more expenditure. She bought a tent and pitched it on the pavement outside her house. She was streetwise enough to tell the press about her predicament. Overnight she became something of a cause célèbre. Evicting her from the pavement was now a problem. The picture of a team of burly men dragging a middle-aged lady and her little tent onto a council truck and carting them away back to the Indian group area was more than the more sophisticated members of the city council could face. They did the civilised thing and took her to court.
Fortunately for Miss Govender and the country the presiding judge was Richard Goldstone who was later to achieve a degree of international stature when he sat in a matter involving Israel and Palestine. Miss Govender told him that she had not been able to find a place to stay in an Indian area and she was desperate. No doubt her tent was draughty. Goldstone decided that it could not have been the intention of the lawmakers to prevent people from finding accommodation and that she could therefore move into her house. She did, and within a week the empty apartments in central Johannesburg had filled with people who were not white, but told agents they could find no other accommodation. The landlords were delighted, so were the many people who now had a place to stay.
Goldstone’s judgement dealt a death blow to the Act. All over the country people who had been unable to find other accommodation moved into white areas where dwellings stood open. Whether Goldstone was right about the lawmakers and their intentions is not something they ever admitted.
We can only hope that a Miss Govender and a Judge Goldstone lie in our future somewhere. The country can use their brand of bravery and honesty.