The failure of what is now called “transformation” – measured by the persistence of white dominance of all pinnacles of employment – has again hit the headlines.
Publication of the Employment Equity Commission’s annual report always elicits banner headlines. This year the outrage, guilt (among whites) or despair was considerably more than usual. This is probably a reflection of the general gloom greeting what ought to have been a celebration of the 25th anniversary of South African democracy and non-racialism.
The headlines, all variations of “white domination”, “white male domination” or the very slow pace of transformation, accurately reflect the statistics provided by the commission (EEC). For instance, although whites form only 9% of the economically active population (EAP), they still constitute 66.5% of the most senior management level. Africans, by contrast, form only 15.1% of this group, although constituting 78.8% of the EAP. In the same way, white men, only 5.2% of the EAP, form 53.3% of top management, while African males are only 10% of this group although being 42.8% of the EAP. Similar inequalities are found in all other of the commission’s five occupational levels.
Racism and the government’s lack of political will are said to be behind these prevailing and glaring inequalities. These are lazy conclusions.
Racism is certainly involved but, against what follows, one questions the size of its significance.
Government’s claimed lack of political will is contrary to the evidence. Above all, this is because the government is so deeply committed to the findings of the commission’s annual reports that it chooses not to notice that the report (like all previous ones) is a fundamental departure from the actual Employment Equity Act (EEA).
There is no such category as “African” in the EEA; “coloured” and “Indian” are similarly entirely absent categories. The same applies to all racialised genders. The EEA – the one actually passed by Parliament, that is – couldn’t be clearer on all these matters.
Section 13(1) of the act states: “Every designated employer must, in order to achieve employment equity, implement affirmative action measures for people from designated groups.” Designated groups, according to Section 1, “mean black people, women and people with disabilities”. Section 1 further stipulates that “‘black people’ is a generic term that means “Africans, coloureds and Indians”.
Turning Africans, coloureds and Indians into separate, stand-alone categories are the commission’s transgression of the act, tolerated by government collusion. The same applies to the commission’s turning of each of these categories, together with the “white” one, into separate male and female sub-categories.
Moreover, these extra-parliamentary categories not only ignore the unequivocal definitions provided by the EEA but are directly contrary to Parliament’s explicit wishes expressed during the debates on the Employment Equity Bill. The ANC rejected all the many attempts to retain these apartheid-invented categories, along with the racialised identities they reflected and reproduced. The ANC majority similarly rejected the divisive attempts to have a hierarchy of oppression among different racialised categories of women.
I was the ANC labour researcher at the time and know this from being present at all the Labour Portfolio Committee meetings where these issues were debated, heatedly.
All this is to say, the annual reports of the Employment Equity Commission are not the reports on the affirmative action provisions of the Employment Equity Act that they purport to be. The apartheid government’s 1991 repeal of the hated Population Registration Act compounds this sleight of hand, for it means that the racial categories at the heart of the commission’s reports are without statutory definition.
The burial of the actual EEA of 1997 is a scandal without consequence, at a de facto level. The commission’s current report reflects the reality of 2019, rather than the founding provision of our Constitution, which declares South Africa to be a non-racial society. Today’s South Africa is as racialised as ever it was during apartheid. The question, therefore, is: what is actually being measured, because it most manifestly is not race?
It bears repeating that there are no such things as genetically discrete races. “Race” was rejected as a scientific nonsense a very long time ago. The non-existence of race automatically means the non-existence of superior and inferior races. How then, to account for the inequality that is all too real?
Apart from individual differences, group-level inequalities are created, shaped, sustained and reproduced by constantly changing societies. This has been so ever since the economic development of each society throughout the world enabled the production of more food than needed to sustain everyone’s life. How this surplus is produced, distributed and legitimised shapes inequalities common to all surplus-producing societies. Although inequality is universal, the form it takes is shaped by the specificities of each society and therefore differ from society to society and from time to time.
South African inequality, as recorded by the EEC, is primarily colour-coded: because of their colour, most of the population – “Africans” in the commission’s categorisation – are perceived to be disproportionally excluded from all but the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs and occupations. But class-divided societies – stratified societies – are everywhere programmed to exclude most people. Exclusion becomes increasingly more pronounced the higher up the stratified pyramid one goes. This is what inequality means worldwide. What we, in South Africa, see as being racial, a feature determined by our apartheid past much like our genes determine the colour of our skin, is in fact much more fundamentally the DNA of all class societies. There are still differences, but these are determined by the ways in which the beneficiaries of each society legitimise their privileges to the losers. “Race” is but one of many such ways.
Class societies everywhere and for all time naturally reproduce themselves. Sociology, for all its limitations, makes this much clear. The children of privileged parents are made privileged just by virtue of the accident of their birth in exactly the same way as the children of poor parents are unavoidably impoverished by virtue of the accident of their birth. Equal opportunity is a modern myth invented by the rich to legitimate their richness and good fortune.
The youngest member of the just-announced Springbok rugby squad, Herschel Jantjies, is a case in point. Born of poor parents, he lived in a poor area and went to a local school teaching local children. His good fortune was the accident of being noticed by a teacher who pulled multiple strings to get him to attend a school his parents could never afford. The school just happened to be Paul Roos. Paul Roos has produced more Springboks than any other school. Jantjies is Paul Roos’s 54th Springbok.
Jantjies brings us to the more South African-specific features of the universal inequalities of class society. “Transformation” in South Africa is an instance of an elite using their newly acquired political power to create a commensurate economic power. It has to do so, however, alongside an already entrenched class accustomed to exercising both political and economic power, within an established system of inequality.
It is these features that shape the struggle for the specifically South African “transformation”.
Among the immediate confrontations emerging from this struggle is that ruling classes never voluntarily relinquish their power and privileges. Unless forcibly overthrown, this remains the case, no matter how odious or oppressive the rationalisations used to maintain their rule.
Two immediate consequences flow from this. First, acceptance of the unavoidability of sharing some of their wealth with a competing elite does not mean a readiness to hand over all their wealth. The former all-white owners of South Africa’s economic wealth might genuinely regret the racism and naked exploitation it legitimised. However, in wanting to preserve as much of their wealth as possible, they are no different from any other ruling class, even though it might appear to be racially driven.
This preservation desire has an impact on the fact that all the top jobs in every economic and professional sector are already occupied. The law – the same EEC – outlaws forced redundancy to make room for new, black occupants. The EEC says that what it calls employment equity can lawfully be achieved only via natural attrition.
But waiting for existing post-holders to retire, die or otherwise move on does not automatically mean that “outsiders” move into posts as they become vacant. The fact that classes naturally reproduce themselves complicates matters. Top post-holders worldwide have a natural desire to keep things in-house, beginning with their own children and moving outward from there to relatives, friends and others who are naturally part of the broader networks, giving life to each of the groups making up the hierarchy of inequality.
South Africa reproduces this universal pattern, thereby further slowing down what might otherwise be seen as a racist clinging to privilege. This is the second of the consequences of no ruling class, anywhere in the world or in world history, voluntarily committing suicide.
An even more specifically South African form of the transformation is the consequences of our education. Here we face what clinical psychologists call dissociation: the defence mechanism by which conflicting realities are separated to the point where the conflict is no longer recognised.
Thus, a focus on education allows dysfunction to be a general conclusion. This, in turn, lets us speak freely about skills deficits; about municipalities lacking the professional capacity to meet legal requirements; about the same capacity constraints being the (partial) cause of SOE debt; about a capable state being a condition for the much needed developmental state; and so on.
Yet, none of this seems to be acknowledged when it comes to EEC reports on employment equity. The weaknesses and deficits of our education system are then no longer acknowledged. Instead, the glaring under-representation of Africans is simply attributed to racism and the continuation of white supremacy. Thus, the minister of employment and labour threatens punitive action against white employers and white-controlled institutions for deliberately not appointing suitably qualified and experienced Africans.
This creates a vicious, downward cycle: the pressure to appoint people of the right colour rather than the right calibre becomes an unstoppable tick-box exercise. This results in the appointment of insufficiently suitable people, which compounds the capacity constraints that are openly spoken about in other contexts.
The limited space left allows for a brief answer to the question of why the government, and the Parliament to which it is beholden, have allowed the EEC to racialise its annual reports in ways that deliberately flout the provisions of the EEA. Only one answer seems valid: the ANC, which in 1997 successfully prevented the pressure from within Parliament (and its own ranks) to racialise the EEA and to do so using the divisive inventions of apartheid, has gone. Replacing that ANC is the ANC committed to what President Thabo Mbeki, in 1999, called the creation of a “black bourgeoisie”. Using race to promote the class interests of a black elite necessitates the perpetuation of the idea of racial injustice.
Fortuitously for this project, South Africa’s class-structured inequality guarantees the perception of racial inequities. Thanks to the commission and its reports we know that 83.7% of the unskilled are Africans. We know also that Africans form 78.8% of the economically active population. This population demographic alone ensures that Africans will predominate among the lowest occupational levels.
In one of the most unequal countries in the world, this means that the mere size of the African population will always permit the “black bourgeoisie” to point to the injustice of black people still living in poverty in an untransformed South Africa. Painting poverty black lets the black rich demand still further BEE and affirmative action for themselves. What could be more convenient than the annual reports of the EEC, with its seemingly statistical “proof” of the prevailing failure of “transformation”. DM