Skills (and Affirmative Action)

Sorry about the break – my girlfriend, Kellie, was visiting for the weekend and I am also preparing for my maths comprehensive exams this week, so I haven’t had time to get back to the blog. This post was supposed to happen a few days ago, so accept my apologies.

After reading ggw‘s response to Exodus, my earlier post about how many people are working overseas, I came back to some serious issues that still plague South Africa. The problem is that of skills. In people above the age of 35, there are not many non-white South African professionals who have the same skills and experience as their white South African counterparts. Apartheid made sure that such equality was impossible. As such, many white South Africans have years upon years of experience in their fields, which makes them quite valuable to the country. That’s not to say that the last fifteen years haven’t rendered many of those skills completely defunct, but there is something to be said for twenty to thirty years of experience in a field. Furthermore, our education system is only now starting to produce students who’ve received (supposedly) equitable educations: schools became multiracial in the early nineties, making it possible for students to have been educated at schools and universities that aren’t designed to be bad. The result of this is that there is an entire generation of non-white South Africans who have been seriously disadvantaged by Apartheid, despite its collapse more than ten years ago. There are far too many non-whites who don’t have the skills or education to be eligible for skilled jobs. Furthermore, their white counterparts often have experience that outmatches theirs on many fronts: even if a non-white person managed to get a degree in engineering in the nineties, he or she would still be at a disadvantage to a white person with experience starting in the eighties.

Thus was the South African edition of affirmative action born. Given only the above synopsis of the situation, it should be clear to anyone that serious action needed, and needs, to take place. And that is before one takes into account the fact that less than 10% of South Africans are white. (At least in 2001, that was the stat: see 2001 Census in Brief for more.) That is why one sees “Affirmative Action Positions” advertised in public: drastic action is necessary to rectify the situation. That is why the South African government has tried to implement and encourage broad-based BEE (black economic empowerment) schemes between big business and non-white South Africans.

At times, however, things go too far. ggw’s comment about racial quotas on our national cricket team addresses that issue. With sport in particular, the issue of racial quotas has been discussed, argued, vilified and praised by all too many politicians to name. To some extent, that is a part of the problem: the suggestions and policies come from outside the sport because those participating in the sport aren’t trusted to change the sport. Business has been treated in much the same way: the government has enforced various policies encouraging or promoting businesses to transform its demographics. In both sport and business, the questions remain the same. Is the specificity of the reforms necessary? Are the reforms too drastic? And do the reforms cause more harm than good?

I hate solely delineating debates, so I am going to throw my two cents in. In my opinion, these questions about most of the reforms can be answered with a simple yes, no, and no. (In the case of sport, I think that sheer talent can’t be foregone, so a number of policies in that sphere are harmful.) As I’ve outlined above, South Africa has a serious skill imbalance. It also has a serious financial imbalance: whites are generally quite wealthy because of the aforementioned skill imbalance on top of their historically privileged position in society. As a result, drastic affirmative action and other policies are necessary. Without them, the country would have no clear incentive to change, so it wouldn’t. It will make life more difficult for many people for a number of years yet, but it has changed, and will continue to change the social structure in South Africa.

I am not a gung-ho supporter of all BEE/affirmative action legislation, however. More needs to be done to ensure that the average man on the township street benefits from BEE policies. Up to now, that hasn’t really been the case. A small number of people with the right connections have made millions that haven’t gone anywhere near the man on the street. And this needs to be guarded against.

Wow. That was long. And rambling. And it may or may not make a point. But I can’t try to process it all at once any more. I’ll shape my thoughts in the near future. Feel free to comment or contact me if you’d like me to elaborate or give examples.


3 Responses to “Skills (and Affirmative Action)”

  1. ggwfung Says:

    Thanks for this long essay Dale. It’s highly instructive for someone outside of SA to be able to peer in, and see what a citizen sees. What gets presented in the international sections of newspapers works at a high level, and doesn’t really drop down into the day to day details of ordinary life.

    Regards affirmative action, I guess there would have been case studies from the USA going back many decades as to its effectiveness and problematics. My own sort of intellectual concern is that Affirmative Action (here AA) actually emphasizes the race divide. Race becomes an issue in considering things.

    If I could bring up an example from the musical world. After the war, in western Europe there was a concern that women were being discriminated against when orchestral positions became vacant. Their solution? To have auditions behind a screen, and let the performance and abilities of the player be the only considerations for the panel. They could have gone down the quota system, but the tack they chose removed the element of gender from the debate. It became a non-issue. And sure enough, women are almost reaching parity with males in orchestral positions. This on pure merit.

    Admittedly, this is a very narrow example, from a world with very well-defined criteria, even if there is a subjective element to performance. I’m not saying such a system could be applied to the economy and society as a whole.

    One feels that if race becomes a factor in affirmative action, then many qualified whites may actually feel “reverse discrimination”, And once you have your pride injured, maybe you decide it’s not worth sticking around, and look elsewhere for opportunities – perhaps contributing to the white exodus you wrote about earlier.

    This is an equally grand reply to your extended post, but these ideas deserve fleshing out.

    In Australia, the aborigines I don’t think have benefited at all from “special” treatment through special government departments that cater for welfare, education,and health. In a way, it cements the notion in the wider public that aborigines are somehow different, a race apart, a group that “needs help”.

    Making race a criteria emphasizes the divide.

    There’s no easy answer for decades of neglect, but good intentions can have poor outcomes.

    Just my 2 cents, and 300 words 🙂


  2. Dale Says:

    ggw, I was going to post a long reply to your comment again, but it got too long. 🙂

    Once again you’ve prompted me to write a long post to capture my thoughts. Thanks for the prompting – it’s much appreciated. 😉

    Still working on it, but it’ll be up soon.

  3. Slow Thoughts from Dale du Preez Affirmative Action (Continued) « Says:

    […] discrimination, and it’s even harder to gauge the benefits people receive as a result. ggw mentions two examples in his comment, those of Aborigines in Australia and female orchestra players in western Europe. The issue of […]

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