Ambiguous Application of Affirmative Action Leaves South Africa Untransformed

Without quotas, affirmative action will have a limited impact on transformation.

By Anna Majavu · 17 Mar 2015

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Picture: Professor Nerdster
Picture: Professor Nerdster

After almost 21 years, affirmative action has not taken root in South Africa and most sectors of the economy, including academic institutions, remain “untransformed”. The most recent Commission for Employment Equity’s annual report noted that whites continued to retain the vast majority of the top positions in South Africa (over 62% last year), even though they number less than 9% of the population.

Decision makers in government and big business consider reparations to the colonised Black majority a fanciful notion, and they view any kind of redress in much the same light. White trade unions are able to generate much support from the media over their opposition to the gradual introduction of Black professionals into workplaces such as Eskom, even at a slow rate which would see Black engineers and artisans take a full 26 years from the end of apartheid to reach a number inside Eskom representative of Black people demographically.

In fact, quotas are an integral part of meaningful affirmative action. Without quotas, there is no deadline to measure change by, and “the vague concept of diversity eventually replaces any notion of affirmative action as a species of reparations” says Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford.

Without quotas, endless statements are made about progressing towards transformation without any proof of this progress being required. Instead, the progress is illustrated by tactics recently referred to by a well-known media personality as “one Black at a time”, or the use of Black appointees as “get out of jail free” cards. These institutions, when questioned on their lack of Black staff, make sure they have one or two Black appointments in high positions that they can point to as proof of “transformation in progress”, when in fact the opposite is true – they are using the presence of these individuals to prevent complaints that they are “doing nothing” – and to keep from having to hire Black people in genuine representative numbers.

Without affirmative action quotas, the “vague concept of diversity” paves the way for an increase in the daily use of institutional racism, not only by employers but by other white people in powerful positions. For example, some clinical psychology masters degree training programmes have traditionally excluded Black honours graduates by allocating 90% of spaces in the tiny classes to white students. This although more than 70% of all clinical psychologists in South Africa are white, and never having experienced racism themselves, are unable to interact meaningfully with Black clients experiencing racism-related stress.

Without a quota to clarify that Black students need to be trained to fill the gap in the workforce, the decision makers at universities can simply continue to deny Black students entry to the programmes without appearing to be doing anything worse than they have been doing all along. And all along, they are able to talk about how it would be nice to be more diverse without being held accountable for keeping Black graduates out. In this case, there is not even a limited level of redress, which would allow Black students access to the institution.

In the majority of other fields, where there is an abundance of Black professionals, the absence of affirmative action quotas mean that those in power can still advance any subjective reason of their choice to keep Black people out, including the telling of downright lies about Black professionals being virtually non-existent or impossible to find. One organisation I once worked for even avoided appointing Black candidates in its head office on the factitious grounds that they "resigned too quickly". Critics of affirmative action quotas have even come up with spurious estimations to justify the absence of Black female scientists in the academy, citing unempirical data to claim that there would only be one such person available to hire every 20 years!

It should be obvious, two decades after the end of apartheid, that there is actually no such thing as an institution or a corporation that is "making progress" towards transformation. There is only a properly representative workforce, or those who continue to practice the institutional racism that keeps Black professionals out of work.

Replacing affirmative action with the “vague concept of diversity” also means that a general tolerance for racism in society increases. Old statues celebrating colonialism, slavery and mass murder become accepted in the public psyche as perpetual exhibits, rather than museum relics. It was seen as so surprising when Black university students smeared faeces on a statue of the man who slaughtered their ancestors last week that some journalists thought it necessary to inform readers that the statue was not harmed by the poo.

It is common for talk of affirmative action quotas to be replaced with talk of diversity. But Ford has pointed out that while affirmative action aims to offer reparations to those who have been wronged, “diversity recognises no such debt to a particular people or to any people at all". It means that those in power can also redefine racism to suit their goal of perpetuating racism, as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the right wing trade union Solidarity are doing currently, where the promotion of Black engineers at Eskom is depicted as a devastating loss of white skills, and hence, as racist.

It is tragic to see that those who complain about a lack of affirmative action, and the lack of opportunities available to Black people and racist treatment in general are often singled out as racists. These purported racists are punished severely, quite unlike the bona-fide racists who are rarely penalised. Scottish cricketer Majid Haq reportedly faces an end to his career after being sent packing from the Cricket World Cup last week over his tweet against racism, which has somehow now become not only a “racism tweet”, but a “racist tweet”. His tweet, “always tougher when your (sic) in the minority! #colour #race” which he composed after not being selected for the team to play Sri Lanka, is of course not racist at all - it is a complaint against discrimination.

Over the last few days, arising from the “poo protest” at UCT’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a new hash tag, “#TransformUCT”, has been doing the rounds. The university’s student representative council is set to hold another march this Friday, 20 March and now their demand is no longer just a firm date for the removal of the statue but for “overall transformation at UCT”. Perhaps it is for this reason that UCT has hurriedly announced that it is at last considering the removal of the statue – because to comply with the new demand that they transform the institution is clearly not an option.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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17 Mar

Blindness on the State

As always, a discussion in which "most sectors of the economy, including academic institutions" does not include the state or the state companies. Perhaps Ms. Majavu can show how whites make up 62% of the upper layers of the SA state, including municipalities, state enterprises, the military, parliament, state departments and so on? Or maybe that would require showing how completely empty the state is of minorities? Which would not of course fit her argument -- but then again, who needs data?

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Anna Majavu
24 Mar

Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report

The data is from the most recent Commission for Employment Equity annual report. 62% is the figure for whites in upper management across the board.

Rory Verified user
20 Mar


What do I want to see in our country? A country where people are recognised for their humanity first and foremost all other characteristics being recognised as secondary.

The historical reality , in South Africa and probably in most other countries, is that this has not been the case. This history has given rise to all sorts of unfortunate knock-on consequences which we here know only too well. Attempts to right these consequences, certainly in our country, have been reactive, operating with reliance on the same irrelevant secondary characteristics as gave birth to the problems in the first place. The problems in society arising from discrimination based on secondary characteristics cannot be fixed whilst continuing with this mindset. It is the mindset that needs to change and the change has to begin at national level. It needs to change to one of accepting people as people first and foremost. To this end any legislation that deals with people must deal only with people, it must not include any secondary characteristics of people whatsoever. The problems that have arisen from earlier legislation, based on secondary characteristics, must be tackled through people oriented legislation not through further legislation based on secondary characteristics. Only then will we be properly on the road to really breaking free from the mindset which gave birth to Apartheid and will continue to give birth to other evils.

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