Anybody who highlights the pervasive racism and racial discrimination still experienced by black South Africans are invariably attacked by enemies of equality who oppose legal measures to address the effects of past and on-going racism and racial discrimination. Claiming that measures aimed at addressing the effects of past and on-going racial discrimination are “racist”, some of them assert that the right to equality always requires all people to be treated the same, regardless of their race, sex, gender or sexual orientation. These arguments, I contend, are both ignorant and wrong.
Insisting on the equal treatment of all people in all circumstances is deeply unfair. Insisting on such equal treatment can also have bizarre and even dangerous consequences.
To use an uncontroversial example, most of us would be horrified if schools insisted that all boys and girls, regardless of age or sex, must play in the same rugby league. Most of us would also be horrified by a government policy requiring every child to pay R50,000 a month to be allowed to attend a government school.
People are often discriminated against on the basis of age, sex or financial status. Yet few of us would deny that the policies mentioned above (which insist on the equal treatment of children regardless of their age, sex or financial ability) are profoundly unfair.
We may point out, when pressed, that because the playing field is not equal for the children involved, an insistence on equal treatment is profoundly discriminatory. It would endanger the lives of some children. It would also exclude children from life-enhancing benefits and opportunities based on no more than the historical “accident” that some children were born later than others, or on the fact (entirely unrelated to the abilities of the particular child) that some parents are able to afford the school fees while most will not.
For this reason the principle of equality cannot be based on the requirement that all people must be treated in exactly the same manner at all times, regardless of their personal circumstances or their personal attributes and characteristics.
Unless you are wilfully ignorant of South Africa’s history, you would not be able to deny that when our Constitution was adopted our society was “deeply divided, vastly unequal and uncaring of [the] human worth” of black South Africans. Anyone who has eyes to see must also admit that these “stark social and economic disparities” persist to this day.
Given our history of racial subjugation and oppression, it is no surprise that these inequalities are racially marked (although, as the Constitutional Court has pointed out, this racial inequality often intersects with other forms of disadvantage based on sex, gender, sexual orientation and – not mentioned by the Court – the relative poverty or wealth of individuals).
In 2011 the average annual income of a “white” household was about R365,000, that of an “Indian” household R251,000, that of a “coloured” household R251,500 rand and that of an average “black” household R60,600. (See table below.)
Our Constitution responds to this undisputed reality. Unlike opponents of redress measures, who insist that we should ignore these facts and should turn a blind eye to the way in which past racial exploitation continues to affect the life-chances of the overwhelming majority of South Africans, the Constitution recognises the incontrovertible fact that all are not equal in our country. If legal rules and policies deny this reality, it will simply lead to an entrenchment of existing inequalities. As the Constitutional Court stated in the case of Minister of Finance v Van Heerden:
“Our Constitution recognises that decades of systematic racial discrimination entrenched by the Apartheid legal order cannot be eliminated without positive action being taken to achieve that result. We are required to do more than that. The effects of discrimination may continue indefinitely unless there is a commitment to end it.”
This is why section 9(2) of the Constitution contains a so-called “affirmative action” clause, which provides for the achievement of full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms and authorises legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons or categories of persons disadvantaged by unfair discrimination.
Our Constitution thus allows for and in some cases, requires, “remedial or restitutionary equality”. As the Constitutional Court explained in the Van Heerden case (ironically brought by a white National Party member of Parliament who complained that he was being discriminated against):
“Such measures are not in themselves a deviation from, or invasive of, the right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution. They are not “reverse discrimination” or “positive discrimination”… They are integral to the reach of our equality protection. In other words, the provisions of section 9(1) and section 9(2) are complementary; both contribute to the constitutional goal of achieving equality to ensure full and equal enjoyment of all rights…. Absent a positive commitment progressively to eradicate socially constructed barriers to equality and to root out systematic or institutionalised under-privilege, the constitutional promise of equality before the law and its equal protection and benefit must, in the context of our country, ring hollow.”
As I have explained before, this does not mean that redress measures will always be constitutionally valid.
First, while the Constitutional Court acknowledges that redress measures aimed at bringing about transformation “will inevitably affect some members of the society adversely, particularly those coming from the previously advantaged communities”, a measure that constitutes “an abuse of power” or imposes “such substantial and undue harm on those excluded from its benefits that our long-term constitutional goal would be threatened” would not be permissible.
Second, the Court acknowledged that in the assessing the validity of redress measures “a flexible but situation-sensitive” approach is indispensable. This is so “because of shifting patterns of hurtful discrimination and stereotypical responses in our evolving democratic society.” Once the income of the average “black” household is more or less equal to that of the average “white” household and once the racially skewed patterns of property ownership have become less glaringly unjust, race-based redress measures may well be found no longer to be constitutionally valid.
It also does not mean that there are not, in certain cases, practical and conceptual problems with the implementation of race-based redress measures. For example, the way in which the current so called Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) policy is being implemented is a recipe for nepotism and corruption. BBBEE can often look suspiciously like a form of bribery aimed at moderating the economic policies of the ANC government and at opening direct channels of communication between the big companies and government leaders.
The revelations about Cyril Ramaphosa’s direct communications with several government ministers during the strike that led to the Marikana massacre clearly demonstrate the “benefits” of political connectivity that BBBEE bring to big business.
Often the policy is implemented in ways that allow the old business elite to “buy off” the new political elite by handing large amounts of shares or board positions to politically connected individuals, without benefiting the broad community and without redistributing assets and benefits to the large majority of South Africans.
Reasonable people could therefore engage in a serious debate about the correct scope and content of such redress measures. But claims that such measures are inherently “discriminatory”, that they infringes on long established human rights norms or that they are inherently unjust, are not based on either facts or any understanding of the legal landscape.
Those who oppose redress measures in principle (not having read much about anything and smugly holding on to their own ignorance) may not be aware that in the legal and philosophical discourse, the Constitutional Court’s approach to redress is neither unique nor conceptually problematic.
In fact, with the exception of some far right-wing judges on the US Supreme Court (who believe corporations have rights – just like people) I am unaware of any modern equality jurisprudence in foreign jurisdictions or in international law supporting the notion that race-base redress measures constitutes “reverse discrimination”.
Thus the lawyers and judges who staff the Committee on Human Rights, providing an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by, and binding on, 167 countries) in a General Comment on the Equality of Men and Women endorsed the notion that states have a duty to take positive measures to achieve equal empowerment of women.
Similarly, the judges and lawyers who staff the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, providing an authoritative interpretation of the equality guarantee in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified by, and binding on, 167 countries) endorsed the need for states to take affirmative action measures and explained the need for redress measures as follows:
“In order to eliminate substantive discrimination, States parties may be, and in some cases are, under an obligation to adopt special measures to attenuate or suppress conditions that perpetuate discrimination. Such measures are legitimate as long as they represent reasonable, objective and proportional means to redress de facto discrimination and are discontinued when substantive equality has been sustainably achieved.”
The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in its authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (ratified by, and binding on, 187 countries) endorsed affirmative action measures as follows:
“It is not enough to guarantee women treatment that is identical to that of men. Rather, biological as well as socially and culturally constructed differences between women and men must be taken into account. Under certain circumstances, non-identical treatment of women and men will be required in order to address such differences. Pursuit of the goal of substantive equality also calls for an effective strategy aimed at overcoming underrepresentation of women and a redistribution of resources and power between men and women. “
Lastly, the judges and lawyers who staff the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in its authoritative interpretation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ratified by, and binding on, 176 countries) explicitly rejects the use of the term “positive discrimination” when dealing with race-based “affirmative action”, noting that in the context of international human rights standards, this term is a contradictio in terminis (a contradiction in terms). It then proceeded to note that such “affirmative action” measures:
“include the full span of legislative, executive, administrative, budgetary and regulatory instruments, at every level in the State apparatus, as well as plans, policies, programmes and preferential regimes in areas such as employment, housing, education, culture and participation in public life for disfavoured groups, devised and implemented on the basis of such instruments.”
There are, of course, some reasonably credible lawyers and philosophers who support the principle that the effects of past and on-going discrimination should be addressed by affirmative action measures, but hold that such measures should not rely on “race”. I have previously written about structural racism, which – I believe – counter these arguments by showing that in South Africa race is not a proxy for disadvantage but itself always causes disadvantage.
All I will add here is that, if you support redress measures but agree with those who oppose the use of racial categories for redress purposes, the examples provided above at the very least must remind you that your argument is neither self-evident nor widely accepted “common sense”. I despair that many people taking part in the debate (wholly ignorant of the writing and jurisprudence on equality which have developed over the past 50 years) seem to believe that it is obvious that race-based redress measures are “racist”. It is not.
My advice to those would be simple: do some basic reading on equality law and the use of racial categories in effecting redress. It may, at the very least, make you realise that the view you think is based on self-evident common sense is not nearly as obvious as you believe. It may even lead you to reflect and think. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.