IT SEEMS unfair to call the recent exchange over race between National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel and government spokesman Jimmy Manyi a duel - unfair, that is, to Manuel. A duel suggests an equivalence of sorts, a fight that takes place literally on common ground and follows commonly established rules.

In truth, the spat between Manuel and Manyi had none of those characteristics. There was neither moral nor intellectual equivalence between the two men's views. Manuel's argument that Manyi was racist (stupid would have been a better term) for suggesting there were too many coloured people in the Western Cape for their own good had political and moral capital. Manyi's claim, regardless of how long ago it was made, had none. That is why we cannot call this a duel.

Naturally, we can call it many things. But we can also call it what it really is: yet another illustration of the chronic failure of the imagination that has come to define SA.

Manyi - who has yet to respond satisfactorily to claims by one of the Scandinavian governments that when he was director- general of labour he tried to moonlight for his own pocket by soliciting business from said Scandinavians - is what I have called in the past a "professional black". He is among those for whom blackness is a job description. He is not a black professional in the sense that one is a black engineer or a black accountant. He is, simply, a professional black. His profession is his blackness. He trades on his skin colour. He thrives on the high melanin content of his epidermis. That is why he insists on staying on as president of the Black Management Forum (BMF). He needs the forum like fish need water. He needs the forum to pursue his self- interested agenda as a professional black. He cannot survive otherwise

Manyi is not alone. There are thousands of professional blacks out there. Some are in the BMF. Many aren't. The one thing these men and women have in common is a profound belief in the political and economic value of their skin colour. They believe that blackness is pretty much all they need to make it in business. It helps to have political connections, they will tell you, but blackness is the primary qualification. These professional blacks are, in some ways, a people without history. They are people without a past. For them to succeed as professional blacks, they must pretend that there was no black business class in SA before 1994. They must pretend black enterprise emerged only after the end of apartheid, thanks to black economic empowerment and affirmative action.

Professional blacks are anti-intellectual by definition. They cannot be honest about the political and economic history of SA without abandoning their bad-faith politics. They believe, in bad faith, that they are the pioneers of black business and that it all starts with them. They have to be anti-intellectual because a true commitment to honest intellectual exchange - such as the one essayed by Manuel in his open letter to Manyi - would expose their charlatanism. It would show up their selfishness.

The struggle against apartheid was not for the creation of a class of professional blacks. We did not fight against apartheid so professional blacks and racial entrepreneurs such as Manyi could come along and demand a slice of the political and economic pie. Manyi is selfish - as his run-ins with the Scandinavians and refusal to give up the BMF presidency show. But that is not all there is to it. In many ways, Manyi and other professional blacks like him are the price we have come to pay for miscasting apartheid. The apartheid system was morally wrong, intellectually bankrupt and politically unsustainable. But apartheid's chief failings did not stem from the fact that it severely limited the training of black doctors, engineers, accountants and scientists - as wrong as that was. Apartheid was not bad because it might have prevented Manyi's father from becoming an A-rated scientist.

No. Apartheid was wrong because it corrupted people's dreams, violated their dignity, denied them the recognition and respect on which human beings depend and thrive, and destroyed the trust and social capital needed to develop shared notions of a common good. But even that does not even begin to sum up the wrongs of apartheid.

However, our collective imagination as South Africans failed when we thought that we could right these and many other apartheid wrongs by mass-producing a class of black professionals to achieve equity. We thought somehow we could make SA better through black economic empowerment and affirmative action. Yes, we need more black engineers, doctors, accountants and A-rated scientists. But that should not and cannot be the measure of our success as a nation. In trying to create a class of black professionals of which the nation can be proud, we have instead ended up with a cabal of professional blacks, who have brought and continue to bring the country nothing but shame.

- Dlamini is a freelance writer.