IT IS necessary to bring some perspective to Thami Mazwai’s assertion that "millions" of people are "starving" in South Africa (Hard to celebrate Christmas amid such misery, December 12).

Data on nutrition that we published in our just-released South Africa Survey 2012 paints a more balanced picture. According to one source the number of malnourished children under five years of age has come down from 88,971 to 26,373, or by 70% since 2008.

A second source suggests that cases of severe malnutrition among under fives have come down from 25/1,000 in 2001 to just 5/1,000 in 2010. A third source suggests that 6.5% of households in South Africa have severely inadequate access to food. A fourth source suggests that 12.2% of South Africans are underweight.

Mr Mazwai is right that the relative opulence enjoyed by the middle classes stands in strong contrast to the poverty and desperation of the underclass. However, I think he is wrong to suggest that while government transfers have improved living standards "other players in society are not coming to the party".

How, after all, could the government afford such transfers if it was not for the effort, investment and risk taking of the other players?

It is necessary, therefore, to disagree with his prescription that more black economic empowerment (BEE) and "thinking black" is any solution to our problems. If anything, this emphasis on advancing race above merit and need has impeded the free flow of skills, capital, and entrepreneurial effort. In conjunction with cadre deployment it is a prescription that has wrought much devastation on the capacity of civil service — the only sector in which the policy has been almost fully implemented.

In areas such as education and the provision of healthcare services this devastation has in turn stunted the social and economic progress of mainly black people.

Increasingly, therefore, the evidence is that BEE is a debilitating and self-defeating idea that has been hijacked by a small elite to the detriment of the majority — something Mr Mazwai alludes to in his anecdote of the "twaddle" spoken by black managers when he tried to raise poverty relief funds from them.

However, he seems dismayed that coming from townships and rural areas these black mangers do not have a greater sense of social responsibility than their white colleagues.

The reason I would suggest to him is that they have become more and more like their white colleagues and how could it be otherwise when they hold the same jobs, earn the same salaries, visit the same restaurants, live in the same suburbs and send their children to the same schools.

In the white business community a small minority of people drove the bulk of the pre-1994 social investment. All of which brings me back to my institute’s long-standing contention that people should be judged on merit and need and not on race, and policy that seeks to do otherwise is self-defeating and should be abolished.

Frans Cronje

Deputy CEO, South African Institute of Race Relations