The Ebony Ceiling and Affirmative Action

By Mandisi Majavu · 14 Sep 2011

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Reading the 11th Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) Annual Report, which details the status of employment equity in South Africa, I was reminded of a report that Dr Sabie Surtee and Professor Martin Hall wrote two years ago. In that report titled, ‘Transformation: African People in the Western Cape’, Dr Surtee and Professor Hall conclude that the labour market in South Africa remains “highly inequitable.” Two years later, the 11th CEE Annual Report makes similar claims. 

Both reports point out that whites dominate management positions in South Africa and that white people continue to be appointed and promoted in empowering positions in the workplace while blacks are constantly overlooked. The 11th CEE Report further argues that employers are more likely to employ white females and Indians from the designated groups “when compared to the African and Coloured population groups at nearly all occupational levels.” Needless to say, these employment practices maintain and perpetuate the racial hierarchy that defined the apartheid labour system. 

The inclusion of white women in the ‘designated groups’ of the employment equity act doesn’t make sense to me. Throughout the apartheid regime, white women enjoyed the very best of white privilege. Additionally, black feminists argue that through white men, white women have always had access to wealth and power in this country.

Although apartheid South Africa was a patriarchal society, white women, unlike black people in general, had access to good quality education; they could travel in and outside of South Africa, and they had black maids to help them with household chores. White women in South Africa are a very educated and powerful group and need not be seen as a group that has been previously economically disadvantaged. They are major beneficiaries of the apartheid system -- a system that the United Nation declared to be a crime against humanity.

In post-apartheid South Africa, white women play a slightly different role. White men, who dominate management positions in South Africa, prefer to employ white women as a way of holding society's wealth within the white community. It is, among other things, this sort of institutionalized racism that makes affirmative action ineffective in this country. Hence, Dr Surtee and Professor Hall could argue in 2009 - 15 years after the end of the apartheid system, that in the Western Cape, black employees do not get promoted through management ranks at an “appropriate rate.”

It was the realization of how ineffective affirmative action is that compelled the labour minister, Mildred Oliphant, to recently call for “drastic measures from all socio-economic partners” to change the status quo. The problem, however, is that some sections of society view affirmative action as “reverse racism.” These claims are often made despite the fact that research has shown that affirmative action opens doors that would otherwise remain shut for people of colour. Further, unlike affirmative action, racism is defined as a belief that one social group is inherently superior in abilities and moral standing compared to other social groups.

There are also some people within civil society who argue that affirmative action perpetuates ‘racialism’ and therefore find it problematic. For instance, Neville Alexander argues that the government is capable of implementing affirmative action without using racial categories of the past. He writes that the government ought to use economic concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘income’ instead to determine people who is eligible for affirmative action. According to Alexander, race-based affirmative action goes against the “non-racial values, which are enshrined in Section 1(b) of the South African constitution.”

To be honest I’ve never quite understood what non-racialism means as a concept and in practical terms. David Everatt, a South African academic, points out that a weakness of the liberation movement in South Africa was the failure to define non-racialism, “to give it content beyond that of a slogan or a self-evident ‘good thing’.” The way that non-racialism is used in present day South Africa seems to be informed by a desire to move away from using racial labels.

I understand that race, and therefore racial labels, are socially constructed. However, I am of the view that as long as people differ in physical appearance, or in their choice of religion or in their cultural beliefs for that matter, difference will forever be with us. Hence, the point should not be about fighting difference, but rather about fighting against oppression as well as racist and sexist institutions. After all, the goal is not to achieve a homogenous society, but to celebrate difference without violating solidarity and diversity.

Instead of aiming to achieve non-racialism - an ill-defined concept - we ought rather to value diversity in the workplace, at schools and in other social places. To argue as if we could achieve diversity through the use of economic concepts such as class and income is to confuse matters.

Like institutionalized racism, diversity originates from a different realm of society that has nothing to do with economics. The resistance to diversity is not mainly about economics, and so to suggest an economic based solution to the problem is to miss the point. Michael Albert, an American thinker, writes that there is nothing in neo-liberal economies’ defining institutions, which says that blacks or women should be treated differently to white men.

That sort of thinking is a legacy of colonial institutions that are bent on continuing the legacy of white supremacy and colonial mindsets, which remain intact in post-apartheid South Africa. What I mean by white supremacy and the colonial mindset is the belief that whites are somehow more capable than blacks, more diligent, better leaders and generally more intelligent than blacks. That is the logic that helps maintain racial hierarchies and oppression in post-apartheid South Africa. It may not be official state policy like it was during the apartheid regime, but the demise of the apartheid system does not mean that white people who have immense economic power in this country have suddenly adopted new ways of thinking about blacks.

As far as I can tell, this is what the statistics partly communicate. Research shows that 90% of CEO positions at JSE listed companies are still dominated by white males and as already mentioned; employers are most likely to employ white women. Similarly, former Model C schools where I live in Cape Town are still very much white enclaves.   

Affirmative action aims to challenge white supremacist thinking by disrupting the employment practices of enduringly colonialist institutions. It is not the most radical or revolutionary solution, but it is a good reform that aims to change people’s lives now. Additionally, race-based affirmative action challenges white supremacist notions that whites are better leaders or better scholars than blacks. It is necessary to challenge these colonial mindsets if we are serious about achieving diversity in the workplace and at schools. Only the most narrow-minded ideologues would fail to see that. 

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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Ernie Gay
13 Sep


You people talk about racism, coloniolism etc., as if everything about it was bad. You blacks have had more benefits out of coloniolism than sufferings. I would really like to see all forms of racism done away with, but you blacks just want to keep it alive and well so that you can always blame it for your own shortcomings. Why do you still have black business associations, black editors forums and black this and black that? Because you want all the exclusive, but unfair advantages that they bestow on you. A few years ago a few white journalists were physically ejected from the Black Editors' Forum meeting. Do the whites have a White Editors' Forum and eject blacks? No, they wouldn't dare. Neither would they want to. The white man may be the cancer of the earth. But the black man is the white man's cancer.

Ernie Gay, Milnerton. Cape Town.

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13 Sep

The Ebony Ceiling

Ag, you what.

I'm so gatvol of being told what bad people 'the whites' or just 'whites' are that I am finally going to do something about it.

I am going to stop reading political or social commentary. You can carry on the revolution without me. There are better ways of spending my time. I can waste precious seconds of an ever-shortening life or I can kiss my wife and try to spend more time raising my children and encouraging them to be the best they can be.

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affirmative white female lesbian
13 Sep

A Very Big, Long and Tiresome Sigh

I would like someone to sit down and crunch a few numbers on how much this country has lost in terms of growth and development due to the brain drain, and the lack of skill and experience in affirmative action ventures. I'm all for laying the responsibility at government's and big businesses door for not doing enough to co-operate on, and solve this issue. And yes, indeed, we need a much more representative managerial and leadership workforce.

I agree that affirmative action has failed to date, and aspects of racial preference most definitely come into play. But I do think it is foolhardy to think that that is the only reason. The fact of the matter is, that white people do come with more experience, skill, and generations of education due to past privileges. But instead of throwing a valuable work force into the oceans, I should imagine it a better idea for the whole country to use skilled labour where they can be most effective, and to give a new generation of South Africans the opportunity to catch up, and move their way up into the managerial and leadership roles of the future. Let's stop talking about skin colour, and start talking about skill, and make sure that access to skills acquisition is available to all South Africans

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Dr A van Coller
24 Aug

Affirmative Action

I am a well educated white male who will never except this AA cancer. Illegal Zimbabwe people enjoy more rights because of their pigment than me coming from the Kingdom of Germany 1740's. They murder, do corrupt deals and must go back. I will be a gentleman and take my white brain to Australia. The mayority whites there think as Africa as the ape Sub-Saharean continent where the wheel will be discovered over 399000000 mil years. Go on and see a new Zimbabwe soon with brain dead leaders like we have.

14 Sep


Mandisi, never forget BEE was born dead, as it too is most unfair and impractical. I therefore cannot concur with your arguments/sentiments and rhetoric at all.

If you legislate someone out of freedom (whites) and someone into "economic freedom"(blacks) without providing the necessary skills/tools, education and adding real value to a company or the system, the country CAN ONLY go one way, thats SOUTH. (Just look at most Govt Depts and service delivery that are failing fast in over 80% of all municipalities, failed agricultural farm resettlements etc.)

BEE has caused a mentality of entitlement, tenderpreneurs, corruption and instant gratification for a few unfairly connected blacks only, not adding ANY real value. No savvy white manager wants to keep wealth amongst whites, as much as amongst competent people who add value to his/her company where ALL will benefit.

It was predicted way back in 1994, that the "unfairly connected black" middle class will have a black revolution on their hands, coming from their own brothers, the continued black disadvantaged and marginalized masses, if Govt cannot, through EFFECTIVE mainstream updated modern EDUCATION, bring all disadvantaged people into the broader economy.

Proof of Govts failure is the current chaotic and hopelessly outdated educational system that continues to breed more unemployable citizens, which gave birth to the rise of the likes of today's out of pace Malemas of the day, that will all eventually lead to a spectacular implosion of civil society as we know it today. Why? Because a symptom is "entertained without addressing the real CAUSE successfully. This too will then be blamed on whites, colonialism and everything else, instead of looking at the inner self, whilst the black Govt was at the helm and in charge.

As long as leaders are not held ACCOUNTABLE, they will NEVER assume RESPONSIBILITY, and always look for a scape coat, for their self created failures, always too PROUD to ask for help because of the deep seated hurt caused by centuries of apartheid. TIME TO GET OVER IT, OR WE WILL ALL GO DOWN!! This has nothing to do with colour Mandisi, but all to do with human flaws. If we don't address it urgently, we will collectively suffer the consequences sooner than later.

Another human flaw (nothing to do with colour Mandisi), was a true statement made by a noble young man running for the American Presidency in the early 1840's, when he declared to the whole world; "We have learnt by sad experience, it is the disposition of almost ALL men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they assume, they IMMEDIATELY start exercising unrighteous dominion."

Mandisi, is SA and the world any different today, Bush, Gaddaffi, Mugabe, Zuma? You be the judge!

A new and fairer model for SA, NOT the FAILED BEE IDEOLOGY, needs to be found soon, before our country reaches a point of no return regarding civil unrest and chaos at all levels. As long as SA citizens are referred to as this or that race, insisting on an Economic Revolution, we are not going to get anywhere fast.

Lets collectively look at a more equitable, fairer and more practical Economic Restitution RATHER, starting to empower people through modern EDUCATION, adding value, bringing self respect and dignity to ALL that live within our boundries

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Black female
14 Sep

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action will never succeed until social and economic issues are dealt with properly. The EE Act still states that besides employing someone from a previously disadvantaged group you must still be "suitably qualified". What good do we do a country if we employ people purely on the basis of race and not whether or not they can actually do the job?

The FAIRNESS of AA is going to be seen in its proper implementation. When you fail to properly implement something, cracks start to show (reverse racism) and it turns out to be a joke.

Of the 700 first year students, only 300 graduate - and just because you have a degree doesn't mean you will get a job. Your academic record needs to be above average...our education system needs to be sorted out before we can say there is a pool of people we can employ from the designated group.

Now when we look at previously disadvantaged, what do we actually mean? There are two schools of thought here. The first holds that it is only necessary that the individual is a member of a designated group in order to qualify as a previously disadvantaged person. The other school of thought holds that in order to be identified as a beneficiary of affirmative action, the individual needs to have actually been disadvantaged personally. In the majority of cases AA is only benefiting a few middle class blacks and not those actually disadvantaged.

On your point of white women not being beneficiaries of affirmative action, I want you to read the recent judgement of the Labour court in the BARNARD case. Women regardless of race need empowerement and that in empowerement will be unique and specific to their particular employer...So if a woman is in a male dominated profession, regardless of race, there is a challenge there for her particularly because of the partrichial society in which we live...Look also at the NEHAWU case where a coloured woman was chosen in place of a black man. Are we now going to argue that black people are more disadvantaged than coloured people? We need to move beyond just race.

We can have categories of the most disadvantaged and the least disadvantaged - it happens in Malaysia and India. But let's not forgot we want the aim to be substantive equality and the creation of a workforce REPRESENTATIVE of the whole of South Africa, not just the select few.

Last point: I attended a labour law conference recently and met a member of government whose department was about to be fined by the Labour Department due to a failure of not having white males in its workforce. We need to strike a balance...lets not forget that.

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Just interested...
14 Sep

AA in African Terms

Curious to understand whether the writer believes it is correct that foreign-born Africans (and other foreign-born non-whites to use Verwoerd's term) should also benefit from AA in this country, despite the fact they were not disadvantaged by apartheid.

In others words, a Nigerian-born lawyer, who only arrived in this country in the mid-2000s, can get a job (and the firm employing her can claim BEE credits) yet a South African-born white male cannot and is eventually forced to go overseas.

Or is everything OK on the basis that everyone was equally oppressed across the continent by the racist collonialists?

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14 Sep

AA/ BEE / Ebony Ceiling

What remains so utterly sad from the informative comments I read sparked by Mandisi's article, is not the insight Mandisi shows, but rather the lack thereof.

What is worse is that it is an attack on the DIGNITY of so called "previously disadvantaged peoples". It is not the cloth that makes the individual my friend, but the deeper inner self. Looking at Mother Theresa, the Dalia Lama, Ghandi, Mandela and others, proves the point.

What is of further insult to "injury" here, is that one mistake does not correct another. BEE/AA is humiliating to all blacks, ESPECIALLY because when it was implemented with a clear lack of insight and wisdom, there was perhaps deliberately no time frame placed on it to further evaluate.

Mandisi, does this therefore imply that all blacks and others in our beloved continent are lesser beings that need permanently be protected and "advantaged" as lesser beings with no substantiveness?

Please request your article to be removed, as it is degrading and completely out of touch to many, having evoked more misery of "entitlement" onto our continent and its people. With responsibility comes accountability and YOU are teaching us neither!!

Whether this article stays or not will personally not affect me, as I have self worth, dignity and morality that are governed internally, not needing unfair discriminating social "crutches" to advance yet another failed, unworthy and unsustainable cause. I am afraid Mandisi, you also have become too gullable, and the likes of Jimmy Manyi are further proof of perpetuating this unjust injustice.

Once you see only PEOPLE, not race my friend and regard all PEOPLE as equal, with different talents yes, the penny will drop. Why attempt to develop us into leeches??? Can you rather explain that!!

Lets rather reach out and learn from each other, than teach each other to "take" and demand, with no value added. This is a path of total humiliating self destruction, whose architects wont be around to see or pick up the tab of ACCOUNTABILITY, cause they conveniently never taught that TRUTH

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14 Sep

See the Person not the Colour of their Skin!

I have to agree with affirmative white female lesbian on many of her points.

What I am getting tired of is the blanket "whites are all priveleged, bad, racist, blah, blah , fish paste" and the "blacks are all underpriveleged, bad, stupid, criminals, etc etc.

I am against racism of any sort and have always been, yet I have been accused of being racist when working at an NGO and taking issue with the fact that my black colleagues were not doing their work which meant that I could not do mine, and had to spend endless hours of unpaid overtime sorting out their problems etc. It could not be that they were incompetent, no it had to be that I was racist....

When all the fighting was going on I was a child, yes a white child, and yes I went to school, but we were never rich, my parents struggled to put us through school. I knew nothing about the racism or what was going on in the country because I was too young.

When I left school in 1975 I started learning about apartheid and racism from my non-white friends of all races... I used to hide my friends and be chased by the cops when I visited them in Langa, Guguletu, Nyanga, District 6 and Rylands... I did what I could for human rights for all as a lesbian woman in the mid 70s.

I could not study as I did not have th money to pay to go to university, and i was on my own from the age of 16. I worked my butt off for everything i ever had in life and never got a handout from anybody.

I never voted until the referendum, and then I voted to give all the right to freedom and the right to vote. I was the first restaurant in Cape Town to have an African Manageress....

Today I am 52 years old, cannot get a job, live in a granny flat in someone's back yard and earn about R2 500 per month if I am lucky, working at least 16 hours per day 7 days a week typing stuff for the internet.

Now tell me again how privileged I am!

The problem is that we need to stop seeing people as being black, white, pink, coloured or any other colour - we need to look at people as human beings and nothing else!

Whilst I underastand the concept of BEE, it has not worked and no mater how much JZ wants to get tough on it and fine firms, it will still not work because the groundwork of education has not been done!

The same goes for land reparaation - most of the farms have failed dismally because you cannot just take a thriving fram and give it to somebody with no training and no financial resources and expect it to continue producing...

They can give all the house and all the jobs to the africans, but what will that help? If they are not trained to do the jobs they will get fired or the firms will go bankrupt, and if they cannot pay the rent, electricity, bond, rates and taxes.....

South Africa will never come right until all races respect eachother and the government leads by example. EDUCATION is the most important thing that needs to be attended to, because without it nobody can work and earn a living.

South Africa has lost its morals, its respect and its way!

I pray that we find the right way some day soon.

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Michael Graaf
15 Sep

Affirm, Yes, but Affirm History

From the beginning colonialism relied on the divide-and-rule method; right up until the end of apartheid there were substantial sectors of the "black" population who benefited from white domination. There were also a few whites who made sacrifices to undermine apartheid, sometimes even losing their lives.

Now we have AA which applies only to pigmentation, so that the Oupa Gqozos benefit to the disadvantage of the Neil Aggetts. Let us rather affirm those who were actually disadvantaged (mostly BUT NOT ALL "black").

The reason we do not look at the actual history of individuals is that the ANC is riddled with so-called royal families who helped run the bantustans.

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16 Sep

The Repetitive Nature of Trauma

Dear Mandisi,

Whilst you don't front it directly, a subtext to your article seems to be that you have experienced and continue to experience suffering as a (presumably) non-white South African. And I hear too the spoken and unspoken suffering of some of the (presumably) white respondents. So many people living in South Africa today are traumatised, and the nature of trauma is such that, if it is not brought into conscious awareness, there will almost certainly be a repetition of the original trauma (as the traumatised recreate the original circumstances in an unconscious attempt to 'finally heal the original trauma with a better outcome'). Sadly, without awareness, these efforts are almost always doomed to fail, the predictable result being a re-enactment of the original trauma. It seems fairly clear to me that Affirmative Action etc are in at least some ways an unconscious recreation of the original traumatic race-based circumstances of previous dispensations, and equally clear that it is not providing the hoped for healing. But what would it mean for all of us to bring awareness to our shared trauma? How would we stop the cycle?

Perhaps it would be better for white people like myself to leave, in some way or other, and wait to see if we are ever invited back as part of a conscious act of forgiveness and healing. Sometimes human beings need time apart in order to heal their wounds. If this is what is needed I would consider it in furtherance of our shared healing and humanity, Mandisi.

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16 Sep

@ Graham

We don't want you to go away Graham. We just want you to share your wealth.

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17 Sep

Illegal Affirmative Action in SA A Crime against Humanity

You are making yourself guilty of inter alia argumentum ad populum and argumentum ad nauseam.

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Truth-Be-Told Verified user
18 Sep

Intelligence Quotient

We are all missing the tragic Elephant in the Room here.
Our average National IQ score hovers around te 70 mark.

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