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Affirmative action’s time has come and gone — tackle present injustices rather than those of the past

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Ghaleb Cachalia is an MP in the National Assembly and the DA spokesperson on Public Enterprises. He serves on the Ethics Committee in Parliament.

All attempts by successive governments since 1994 to wipe away the legacy of apartheid and colonialism have failed to narrow the imbalance between rich and poor, with 3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in a country of 60 million.

At university, a professor whom I admired for his scholarly erudition once told me that he marked students down by way of some sort of reverse affirmative action ranking if they were white, attractive and wealthy, so as to provide others who were “less privileged” with the benefit of what later became known as a level playing field. I was a young undergrad at a prominent British university and this was in the late 1970s.

I remember being somewhat disturbed by this honest, if questionable, disclosure, but I had other priorities at the time — balancing the finishing of my overdue essays with the allure of the squash court, the barrels of real ale in the student bar, the politics of the students’ union and the many attractive young women who graced the halls and lawns of that venerable institution.

It did cross my mind at the time that at least he wasn’t marking up the “less privileged” and nor was he lowering the bar; he was simply making it tougher for those whom he saw as blessed by inherited benefit and circumstances of their birth.

More than a decade before that, in the US, President JF Kennedy had issued an Executive Order action for the first time by instructing federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”.

This pioneering implementation of affirmative action, intended to give equal opportunities in the workforce to all US citizens and not to give special treatment to those discriminated against, was the forerunner of the ideas and practice that inspired my professor who had grown up in the formative liberal flowering and progressive politics of the 1960s.

Fast-forward to the 1980s and we see the emergence of discourses on privilege and the imperative to “check your privilege”, based on the idea that certain groups and individuals benefit from unearned rewards based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc and that this requires ongoing attention by way of acknowledgement, smoothening and even self-flagellation — all of which has fuelled a polarisation on how and whether social identities grant or deny privilege.

This was accompanied by a shift in the aim of affirmative action from delivering equality to championing equity in the allocation of resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. It draws heavily on a moral justification for redressing historical injustice without acknowledging that the moral right to demand redress fades as time passes and that we should perhaps be concentrating more on tackling present injustices, rather than focusing on the past and how it affects the present.

In our race-riven country, the evolving trajectory of racial remedies and attempts at social engineering needs to be seen against a World Bank report released on 9 March that describes South Africa, the largest country in the Southern African Customs Union, as “the most unequal country in the world, ranking first among 164 countries in the World Bank’s global poverty database”.

All attempts by successive governments since 1994 to wipe away the legacy of apartheid and colonialism have failed to narrow the imbalance between rich and poor, with 3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in a country of 60 million.

Moreover, Thomas Piketty’s World Inequality Lab report (2021) shows that while black South Africans have outnumbered whites in the richest 10% of the population for about seven years, the gap between South Africa’s richest and poorest hasn’t narrowed and top black incomes have increased significantly as opposed to any increased wealth for the poorest — who also happen to be largely black.

So, what is the answer to our national problem? Is it, as Louis P Pojman, an anti-war and civil rights activist in the 1960s and author of more than 100 philosophy texts asks in a 1998 contribution to the International Journal of Applied Philosophy: “Increased welfare? More job training? More support for education? Required licensing of parents to have children? Negative income tax? More support for families or for mothers with small children?”

All of these, he argues, have merit and should be part of the national debate. But, as he is at pains to point out, “One policy [that] is not a legitimate part of the solution… is reverse, unjust discrimination” — however well-intentioned.

His thesis is that we should promote equal opportunity, as much as is feasible in a free market economy, and reward people according to their individual merit and that by giving people what they deserve as individuals, rather than as members of groups, we show respect for their inherent worth. 

Instead of engaging along the lines suggested by Pojman and notwithstanding our eye-wateringly high unemployment rate of 46.6%, the ANC government appears hell-bent on introducing job reservation via workplace quotas for foreigners with caps on numbers employed accompanied by bans on employment in certain industry sectors. Additionally, the current Employment Equity Amendment Bill empowers the labour minister to set race-based numerical targets or quotas across the economy.

What began, in recent history, as an initiative to foster equal opportunities to those who had been hitherto excluded — an unimpeachably laudable and ground-breaking act — has morphed over time, encouraged by proponents of critical race theory and social justice warriors into what Lindsay Bremner, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, describes as the “contradictory space” inhabited by many of South Africa’s new black elite “where the colour of one’s money rapidly replaces skin colour as the currency of showy success” and where “acquisitiveness goes hand in hand with that other must-have suburban attitude: lack of curiosity about everyone else”.

A pity that this affirmation has left large swathes of impoverished black South Africans behind and others excluded. The old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is perhaps apposite here. DM

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All Comments 13

  • This truly isn’t rocket science. What does or has affirmative action achieve. First off, end users paying an extra 10………50% more than free market prices doesn’t help a bankrupt government who ironically have stolen the very money which could have been used to uplift others. Secondly, apart from learning how to mark up the required percentage, what skills have been acquired? Countries need a huge scope of trades and professions. Years gone by we had mechanics, electricians, builders etc as well as teachers, nurses, lawyers and so on. AA disempowers people and gets them used to hand outs and of course Africas’ most loved and trusted tool, the begging bowl.

  • “All attempts by successive governments since 1994 to wipe away the legacy of apartheid and colonialism have failed to narrow the imbalance between rich and poor, with 3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in a country of 60 million.”

    To what extent was the Zuma-led government seriously trying to wipe away the apartheid legacy? What great learning initiatives did they produce, or how much land did they legally redistribute to the needy?

    If we’re not even trying then it’s no mystery as to why we are falling short.

  • This topic needs to be aired much more in South Africa, and it has many facets. One thing is absolutely clear – 28 years of ANC affirmative action policies have not been of any benefit to the vast majority of Black South Africans. For many the last 15 years have been a slide backwards, with steadily growing unemployment. Something is wrong somewhere. Is it privilege? Privilege has definite benefits. Privilege is built on a secure early family life with decent housing, good schooling and inculcation of a strong work ethic. If this is still the problem, the ANC is largely to blame for their failure to provide housing, education, or clear moral leadership. Is it foreigners taking jobs? No. Foreigners bring necessary skills and a willingness to work. Is it White dominance in the skilled, professional and leadership workplaces? This was certainly something to be addressed 20 years ago, but why has it been only partly successful? The key factor in my experience has been that for a variety of reasons (industry charters requiring early retirement, squandering by SETAs of training levies, and more) affirmative action policies have removed senior competent mentors. So again, poorly thought through ANC policies are the primary reason. The ANC has failed, and the perceived need to perpetuate this failed policy in order to loose fewer votes is damaging South Africa badly.

  • AA and BBBEE was supposed to fix our stats. Our stats are terrible. But maybe they are wrong.

    Do these income and wealth disparity studies correctly account for:
    R1.2 trillion rand per year is spent on free housing, education, university, free basic electricity, free basic water, healthcare and grants. Disproportionately spent on poorer persons. If two otherwise identical countries were studied, there should be an enormous difference in “income” in the country that does offer all that free. Ours amounts to about R3000 per month for 40 million men, women children…
    There is an area much larger than Kruger Park that belongs to a trust for the benefit of the Zulu. Want to imagine what that land is worth? Was it attached to the millions of zulu or grouped with some other category along with all the pension fund investments owned by poorer workers?

  • Building RDP sheds while dismantling public education is not closing the gap. Without a challenging and meaningful education system, the gap is only destined to become wider.

  • Yet another DA member of Parliament talking (common) sense and stating the obvious to anyone that has eyes to see and ears to hear. SA must get rid of the current majority party if it is address honestly the unacceptable inequality in this country.

  • The problem is that the ANC has simply got no other arrows in its quiver; so of course they ever increasingly batten down the hatches, beat whom they consider to be the advantaged (never from their own ranks of course, no matter how obscene the salaries are in the public, as opposed to the private sector) ever more powerfully over the head, and ever more stridently insisting that “they” voluntarily give up some of their assets and all of their supposed “privileges”, while continuing to cream of the majority of any advantage gained into their, self-administered, BEE lager of cohorts.

    Meanwhile the poor get poorer and poorer …

    And as the poor get poorer the ANC gets ever more desperate, believing theirs is the only way … and of course the poorer continue to get poorer, but along with all the others as the economy limps along, barely even able to put one foot in front of the other … as the World of course has long since sprinted ahead leaving the laggards to wonder in their cosy little Zimbabwe, North Korea, Venezuela, South Africa, Haiti et al, make-believe World, What happened?

  • This is a great article, not only for what is in the article, but for the fact that this sort of liberal honesty has been a long time coming to the South African media in general.

  • These points on inequality/poverty are well made and substantial. South Africa has a social problem and not a racial one so policies based on race are bound to fail. Additionally, poverty is a human problem, behaviour differentiates humans from the other animals, there fore what type of behaviour results on poverty. Behaviour is the cause of poverty and one of the consequences is a lack of resources. The other consequences are limited relationship skills and poor adult health. The policies of giving gifts and favouring one race does not change behaviour so growing inequality is the inevitable result.

  • BEE and affirmative action in its current form make South Africa a very unattractive investor destination. This is a major cause of unemployment, inequality and poverty. Highly skilled young white South Africans are largely excluded from the economy but welcomed by foreign countries, so are encouraged to leave and contribute to building those economies rather than ours. If BEE and AA really must be retained, then it should be on a means basis. Once a Previously Disadvantaged Individual (PDI) has been economically uplifted (due to his/her balance sheet) he/ she should be removed from the list of PDI’s as his /her disadvantage has been “addressed” and is no longer disadvantaged. This would allow others to benefit and build the large middle class we so desperately need. But it would be preferable to make South Africa a non-racial country, where asking a person for their racial identity would be an offense. Apartheid was terrible social engineering and BEE & AA are using exactly the same tools in trying to correct the problem. After failing for nearly 30 years, the architects should have realized that it is only working for a very small select group, but exacerbating the effects of apartheid rather than changing South Africa into a normal, happy society.

  • To strive for equal outcomes is foolish – nothing more than repression. Equal opportunity regardless of race, age, infirmity, etc – yes

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