In the past weeks there have been two big news stories surrounding affirmative action and racism. First was the story that South African Airways was rejecting applications from Whites for their cadet pilot programme which was followed by news that Woolworths was excluding Whites from it’s recruitment process. SAA later ammended the programme to allow White applicants while Woolworths has denied the accusations of racist employment practices as they are in line with employment equity policies. SAA for example claims that 85% of it’s pilots are White compared to 9,2% of the general population so it was just trying to address the imbalance. While there may be an imbalance I believe that this is entirely the wrong way to go about fixing it.
The standard line seems to be that Apartheid greatly skewed the country’s wealth in favour of Whites and even in post-Apartheid South Africa Whites have a huge advantage. In order to return the balance, for example to bring the racial profile of SAA pilots from where it is now to better reflect national demographics, it’s necessary to provide advantages to Black (or “previously disadvantaged” to include the other races that were discriminated against during Apartheid), sometimes at the expense of White South Africans. Some might call this “justified racial discrimination” and those that oppose it to be racist or “the unfairly privileged.” While proponents of those arguments have many good points, I’m certainly not trying to deny reality here, I do not believe that their solution to the problem is helpful at all. In fact I think affirmative action and the focus on the previously disadvantaged (even if renamed currently disadvantaged) is actually hurting the country more than it is helping.
I think the biggest problem here is basing employment equity on race. We can’t go from a racist system (Whites being advantaged over Blacks during Apartheid) to a race-neutral country through another racist intermediate (where Blacks are advantaged over Whites currently). All we’re doing there is continuing the Apartheid system and building resentment and racial tension. We moved away from Apartheid because it was wrong to treat races differently and because we wanted a society with equality. We should’ve learned from the past, not repeated it’s mistakes, even under the guise of fixing what had gone wrong. People will immediately counter that we can’t just go straight to equality because there is such inequality that something needs to be done specifically to address it.
For example Pierre de Vos says:
Of course, there might be some White people who find it difficult to face up to the fact that we have all benefited from the Apartheid system and that we continue to benefit from the education and wealth acquired during the Apartheid years, and from the informal networks that still dispense opportunities to well-connected Whites and protect and promote our interests informally. Some of the children and grandchildren of Apartheid beneficiaries might also find it uncomfortable to have to admit that they are continuing to benefit from their parents’ ill-gotten wealth, the educational and other opportunities it might have provided them with, and from their White skins, which give them access to these informal networks of members of the economically powerful White minority.
And Jacques Rousseau echoes the sentiment:
It is of course wrong to ‘blame’ White people (except for some, of course – I’m happy to blame PW Botha, FW de Klerk, etc.) for continuing inequality premised on race. It’s wrong to set out to make White folk, in general, ashamed of being White. But those are very different to recognising that there are still significant inherent privileges to being White, and (as a White person) not getting defensive when those are pointed out. In other words, it’s not as simple as option A) everything is equal and hunky-dory or B) we have reverse-racism. We do have racial discrimination, yes, any many people (including many Whites, like me) think it entirely justified.
While I can’t deny that as a White person I do enjoy certain benefits I do consider affirmative action to be racist purely on the basis that it discriminates according to race. Furthermore I think it fails to address two things.
Firstly, race is too broad a category to use to repair the past. Yes, the inequalities were based on race but to think that almost 20 years later the country has stood still is ridiculous. Basing a policy on race to help the “previously disadvantaged” ignores all the following complexities (and probably more). Whites who are currently (or even were previously) disadvantaged, whether through bad luck, opposing Apartheid or whatever cause. Those Blacks that have now made it in society and are as, and at times more, privileged that Whites. Blacks that left the country, made a good life, and subsequently returned. Blacks and Whites who have immigrated to South Africa from other countries who did not live under Apartheid. Those people do not fit the broad category of race as they were either not previously disadvantaged or didn’t even have any ties to Apartheid South Africa.
Secondly, I hadn’t even started school by the time we had the first democratic elections. I reject any claim that I should hold blame for what was done those that came before me or the idea that I should share guilt purely because of the colour of my skin and the country in which I happened to be born. Our entire lives are based on historical contingency and it is futile to try and erase that history in one move and unfair to do so at the expense of those that were not involved in it. While I enjoy a certain amount of privilege there are sources of privilege that people are born into regardless of how equal society is. Being born in Europe to a family with equal standing might’ve left more privileged. Being born Black in Somalia might’ve left me worse off than in Apartheid South Africa. Even in an equal society there will be rich or poor and some members will experience greater privilege than others. Being born in Cape Town I was able to attend UCT, something that would’ve been impossible if I were born in another city. The situation is far more complicated than just Black and White.
That’s not say that nothing should be done to try correct the injustices of the past but just that race is the wrong way to go about it. It’s actually weakening South Africa. If we accept that the privileged Whites are generally better educated then those are the people we need to help the country achieve it’s goals. Affirmative action has driven a lot of skilled Whites out of the country. According to Wikipedia:
In mid 1998, the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) undertook a study to examine and assess the range of factors that contribute to skilled South Africans’ desire to leave the country: over two-thirds of the sample said that they had given the idea of emigration some thought while 38% said they had given it a “great deal of thought”. Among the reasons cited for wishing to leave the country was the declining quality of life and high levels of crime. Furthermore, the government’s affirmative action policy was identified as another factor influencing the emigration of skilled White South Africans. The results of the survey indicate that skilled Whites are strongly opposed to this policy and the arguments advanced in support of it.
In addition it says that between 1 million and 1.6 million skilled people have emigrated since 1994 and that for every emigrant, 10 unskilled people lose their jobs. That’s up to 16 million job losses and the reference for that is from 2004! That does not help the country achieve equality or economic progress. We need to actively decide to move to a non-racial South Africa and to focus on fixing the problems left over from Apartheid. I’ve explained how I think this can best be done before and I’ll do it again.
This preoccupation with race is one of the problems that Apartheid left us and we need to toss it out. Some of the other problems are a lack of skills, education, opportunities, services and amenities for certain members of our population. I’m not framing those members by race because that’s an unnecessary distraction. The only important thing is that part of the population has suffered discrimination and is now disadvantaged. With race out of the picture we can see what needs to be done. We need to improve services, we need to provide job opportunities and we need to provide education. This shouldn’t be done with outdated labels but purely in order to address the flaws in society. We need to lift people up into society, not exclude those that can help us. So when we structure employment policies we don’t say, “He shouldn’t apply.” We should, “Here’s how we will help you apply.”
With the majority of our population Black and the majority of our poor, unemployed and uneducated also being Black any attempt to solve those problems will automatically achieve the goals desired by the current employment equity programme. In addition, by looking at the circumstances of individuals it will no longer care about race, only about who needs help. If someone is White and living on the streets they need just as much assistance as if they were Black. And if a Black family is making a good upper middle class living they no longer need that help, they are the success story. We will have a programme that can be continued indefinitely, always helping those members of our society that need it but not at the expense of others. If SAA’s programme or Woolworths advert did not exclude Whites but provided extra support for those from a disadvantaged background would it not achieve the goals that we want to see? And it would it also not contain none of the discrimination that has divided the country? Shouldn’t it be what we are aiming for?