I n Part 1 we explored the rumoured origins of affirmative action and the essence of it. In this Part 2 we take the discussion further as regards what affirmative action is and what it is not.
The trouble with the affirmative action debate is that it is rooted in whatever political, racial or religious camp of the speaker, further cluttered by un-original thought usually characterised by quotable quotes (even if unacknowledged) of famous (and infamous) pretenders that the speaker obviously holds in higher regard than himself or herself. The moment you strip away that political, religious or racial bias; that borrowed Churchill epigram or Tony Leon sarcasm; that hero-worshipped Mbeki’s “Afrocentric” thrust or the admired Arch’s elusive “rainbow nation” promise, there is no substance left in the debate. Cold, non-aligned and original thought is what is required for a meaningful debate on this subject. I am certain that if we were to come out of the pigeon-holes we have carved out for ourselves, every sane South African would see the need for affirmative action.
Because we are a constitutional democracy, it all starts with the Constitution. From what I can gather from opponents such as a trade union that crossed the Atlantic to demonise affirmative action (ironically in a country where the principle is said to have originated) it appears few people in the affirmative action debate are aware that affirmative action – like the property rights that many propertied white people tend to invoke at the drop of a hat – is a constitutional imperative. That really ought to be the end of the argument against affirmative action as a principle or government policy. It is, like spilt milk, done. Not by hook or by crook but by law. Like law-abiding citizens, we should learn to live with it – at least until another government with different policies takes over.
Just over a decade ago in Cape Town, the city council, in its haste purportedly to “deracialise” life in that city, removed the requirement of affirmative procurement for city contracts. One wonders whether the council took the trouble to seek honest counsel’s opinion before embarking on that clearly constitutionally provocative (albeit seemingly politically expedient) path in a city notorious for service delivery that is skewed along racial lines and where the lines of the Group Areas Act are as prominently marked out now as they were in the heady days of “separate development”.
It is not affirmative action as a policy that is the devil but the manner of its implementation. You cannot appoint a black BA graduate over a white medical doctor to perform medical procedures. That is not affirmative action.
A 16 year old white matriculant at my old school articulated the proper application of affirmative action clearer than I feared to tread when he said it cannot be about choosing the black candidate over a white candidate of equal ability, experience and qualification because in almost all instances the white candidate will in any event have the very advantage (as regards experience and therefore ability) gained from years of preferential treatment that affirmative action seeks to correct. It must therefore, said he, be about appointing a less qualified black candidate (not unqualified) in whom resources will be ploughed in order to bring him or her up to the required standard within a relatively short time without compromising the quality of the work that needs to be done.
Of course, the implementation goes pear-shaped where the black candidate so appointed is then left unresourced, undeveloped and unsupported. That is a failure of implementation, not of affirmative action as a policy.
So where does that leave young white graduates not advantaged by preferential treatment of the recent past? For one thing there is no such thing as a young white graduate not advantaged by apartheid. Such are the trappings of advantage that people may take it so for granted that they may not realise it is there.
Ask a black child whose breadwinner father never returned from work one day because he was not carrying his “pass” and so was trucked to the Transkei in a place he had never set foot before, and subsequently lost his messenger job for not showing up at work “without cause”, and never regained employment as he then had a “previous conviction” of not carrying his “pass”.
That child will probably tell you he or she could not go back to school because he or she had to find work in white people’s mines or gardens or kitchens to support his or her mother who was left traumatised by the disappearance of her husband. Get the picture?
For another, if I were a young white graduate who considers himself not to have been advantaged by apartheid, I would take a look around me (especially in the financial services sector, engineering, law and some specialist disciplines in medicine) and sleep well at night secure in the comfort that this affirmative action “beast” is all much ado about nothing. It will be decades (if ever) before South Africa can safely dispense with young white graduates’ skills. And I would not allow a politician intent on a residential address at Tuynhuys to tell me otherwise.
In Part 3 we shall discuss what the Constitutional Court says about affirmative action.