Defend Truth


Affirmative action: Equity does not come with voting rights alone

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

There are certainly issues worth debating related to affirmative action. Sunset clauses are one. Whether we should focus on class rather than race is another. But one generation is far too short a time to think that a black job-seeker has an equal shot of success as a white one does. 

When you call for a boycott of Woolworths or SAA it’s not in my name, Solidarity. 

Not when you misinterpret legislation, or at the very least stick your fingers in your ears and stamp your feet when you’re offered alternative interpretations. And not in the indignant tones of a group that wants to claim disadvantage in a country where the 10% of us who are white still seem to control just about everything except for the government.

I get that you are frustrated – judging from the comments on some recent Daily Maverick columns, many white folk are at least frustrated, if not angry. It’s even fair to say that you might have a point, because if it’s true that Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) is handicapping business and holding back otherwise qualified white employment candidates while only benefiting black tenderpreneurs, then B-BBEE is broken. An unemployed black person might even be quick to agree with you, if it was that obviously broken.

Another way in which you certainly have a point is that we shouldn’t be reserving jobs, or positions at universities, according to race. As I argued last year during the crisis-talks around who was allowed to call themselves “African”, Patrice Motsepe and Anton Rupert have far more in common than Steve Hofmeyr and I do. Both black and white refer to something meaningless, or are shorthand for something else that is deeply meaningful.

That meaningful thing is privilege and power, and whether one has it or not. It is whose numbers you have on your cell phone, and whose you do not. It is how many books you read as a child, and therefore how ready you were for school and maybe university. And it is about whether your parents had time to spend weekends with you instead of go to work – or even sometimes about whether you knew your parents at all. It is about all these things, and many more that I can’t imagine.

Those meaningful things tend to correlate with race. We can perhaps summarise it by using the descriptor of “class”, even though that would need further definition. And no, melanin levels play no direct causal role in assigning you to a class. But they have played an indirect one for centuries, thanks to those of us with a lighter skin using race as a proxy for identifying those who stand ready to be exploited.

Not willing, of course, but ready. Sometimes ready by not knowing any better, or through trust in the wrong people. Eventually, as you all know, the exploitation was codified in law, and it was ensured that the vast majority of our population would have less access to the privileges of good educations, safe neighbourhoods, running water and the like. 

Those laws changed one generation ago. So it is true that many entering the job market today grew up in a racially neutral democracy. But very few of those job-seekers have parents who can advise on appropriate water-cooler conversation, or on which tie goes best with that suit, or on what to do when you’re the subject of sexist jokes in the workplace.

Whether you want to identify freedom’s start in 1994 or some other date, it does not constitute an act of magic, despite the exuberant rhetoric we so long to believe in. 

Disadvantage can at some point in history be considered self-inflicted, or an instance of bad luck that has no systemic cause such as racial prejudice. But we’re not there yet, because it remains unreasonable to question the fact that a white kid – in general – enjoys advantages that a black kid does not.

Ideally, this conversation shouldn’t be about race. It should be about identifying which South Africans are underprivileged due to some or other injustice, and then providing redress where possible. If we could find a better way of detecting this lack of privilege than race we should use it, or at least open the discussion about using it. Affirmative action based on something as meaningless as skin colour does need a sunset clause, or some sort of trigger condition for its demise.

And yes, it is also true that there are poor white folk, some very rich black folk, and therefore easy examples of inefficiencies and injustice you could point to as being caused by affirmative action. But when you do so, you sound like a racist. Because those exceptional cases don’t alter the fact that cultural capital – Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the knowledge, access and other advantages that allow white people, in general, to still enjoy a higher status in society – is not built over a single generation.

So by all means, Solidarity, question whether we should substitute class for race and explain to us how we should do so. Introduce the idea of a sunset clause – it would be improper for you to be accused of racism simply for doing that. As far as I’m concerned, you could even ask whether it’s appropriate for a job to be targeted at a certain race group, if it’s true that doing so would constitute unfair discrimination.

But as I tried to point out in my column on SAA’s cadet scheme, when one race – or one class – is under-represented in certain job categories, it’s pretty easy to guess what race and class they are, and why they are under-represented. And it’s perfectly justifiable to try to find qualified candidates from that group, before expanding your search to include looking for more people of the sort you already have.

We should all hope to one day not need affirmative action of any sort. But if you claim we don’t need it now, simply because no child was born into a South Africa where they were deprived of a vote thanks to their skin colour, you’re really missing the point that you can’t simply vote your way into a better life for all. Securing a better life involves education, employment and a host of other goods – all of which remain easier to access if your skin happens to be pale. DM


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