S pringbok Rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, got tongues wagging on social media recently by expressing the view in a television interview that Nelson Mandela would not approve of quotas in the selection process for a place on the Springbok squad. He also said, among other things, he does not want to be selected on the basis of his race.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the Springbok Captain’s views, affirmative action seems to be much misunderstood. Whether such misunderstanding is genuine or by design often depends on the environment of one’s upbringing and social construct.

While unfair discrimination in South Africa has in various ways touched not only black people (that is, those who are not white) but also women (to varying degrees depending on race), the disabled (again, to varying degrees depending on race), gays and lesbians, people of the Jewish faith and people of the Islamic faith, black people have been particularly ravaged by it and continue to feel and live the effects of apartheid. Black people of African descent have undoubtedly borne the brunt of it all. Enter affirmative action.

It is rumoured that the whole affirmative action debate started in 1941 when American President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which outlawed discriminatory employment policies by defence-related industries which held federal contracts. Some 12 years later in 1953, President Harry Truman commissioned a Committee on Government Contract Compliance which recommended in its report that the Bureau of Employment Security “act positively and affirmatively to implement the policy of non-discrimination”.

The phrase “affirmative action” was first used in an American Executive Order 11246 signed into federal law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The Order required all federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, colour, or national origin”. The penalties for breaching the Order included criminal prosecution and termination of the contract. Two years later, the reach of the Order was extended to include women.

Of course, to “take affirmative action” in the context of the 1965 Executive Order meant to consciously take positive steps with a view to ensuring that the then practice in America of discriminating against black people in the workplace was brought to a halt. But since the practice was so entrenched and widespread that it had been accepted as a way of life, positive (hence “affirmative”) action was required to root it out.

One cannot “uproot” weed and its effect simply by allowing it to die a natural death. One has to actively weed it out. Discrimination in South Africa against black people was (and still is) like weed in an otherwise beautiful and blossoming garden – the garden that is our economy. Just as positive action is required to stop weed from growing and to remove the effect that it has on other plants and flowers (that of ravenously soaking up water and eating up the nutrients needed by these plants and flowers in order to blossom), so too positive action is required to weed out the effects of discrimination against black people. Merely stopping and no longer actively practising or encouraging discrimination against black people in the economy will not extirpate its firmly rooted effects. President Lyndon Johnson was painfully alive to this.

Siya is wrong when he says Nelson Mandela would not have approved of quotas in the selection process on the Springbok squad – if by that he meant affirmative action – because in 1998, the first democratic Parliament under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela recognised, in the pre-amble to the Employment Equity Act, that:


“as a result of apartheid and other discriminatory laws and practices, there are disparities in employment, occupation and income within the national labour market”; and

“those disparities create such pronounced disadvantages for certain categories of people that they cannot be redressed simply by repealing discriminatory laws”:

So, affirmative action, in truth, means to act positively with a view to rooting out the effects of discrimination. It is not intended – nor was it ever intended in the land of its rumoured origin – to put a stop to discrimination itself. To do so would be tantamount to ring-fencing and perpetuating the advantage unfairly – in many instances brutally – gained by white persons at black persons’ expense.

In any event, the Constitution that was negotiated at a multi-party forum comprising all races does allow for justifiable discrimination. Affirmative action is just that.