Affirmative Action (Continued)

Thanks once again to ggw, one of my comments became a post. As I was going to point out in my response to his comment, long essays are necessary because the topic is so nebulous and wide-ranging.

In South Africa issues of race are NOT going to disappear in the near future. The question of whether affirmative action is effective in South Africa is a really interesting one that alters a number of the premises governing affirmative action in general. By that, I mean that there are serious differences between the South African situation and most affirmative action case studies. First and foremost of these is the fact that the policies benefit the vast majority of South Africans, and not a minority, as one would see with case studies on affirmative action. Technically speaking, affirmative action policies apply to previously disadvantaged individuals, and not only blacks. And that really complicates any assessment or comparison of policies’ effects.

The main issue is because it benefits far more people than it denies. The numbers involved make it hard to draw relations between case studies and the South African situation: 90% of people have been unfairly denied access to employment. It means that it’s difficult to relate it to gender-based 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 gender is tough, mainly because so many cultures have discriminated against women for so long that the social roles expected of women (by both men and women) make it harder for all women to even reach the point where glass ceilings or discrimination come into play. Race in South Africa is quite different, in that the vast majority of people believe non-whites are just as capable as whites and the social roadblocks are less substantial. The example does apply in some arenas, however, especially sports, where a number of hugely talented individuals don’t need any help to make a name for themselves. (Think Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince, Chiliboy Ramaphele, Breyton Paulse, Bryan Habana, …)

The example of the Aborigines, on the other hand, brings up interesting questions, though. ggw points out that Aborigines didn’t really benefit from affirmative action. The first of these is that of whether affirmative action benefits its recipients. In South Africa, you would be hard pressed to argue that affirmative action hasn’t been a boon to millions South Africans. The civil service and government, which used to be bastions of white employment, have changed radically. Because of the skills issues I highlighted before, business and sports et al have been slower to change, but they have changed – one can’t doubt that at all. One now reads of an emergent black middle class in newspapers and business communications, something that would never have been factored into business plans until recently. There have undoubtedly been tangible benefits, though there are some side effects that few foresaw, like serious demand for credit and low savings rates, but those are issues for another day. The end result is that South Africa now has millions of black, India, coloured and white people in a position to demand credit, services and goods. It would have taken much longer without affirmative action.

On the flip side of the coin, however, is the other question that ggw raises. Does affirmative action increase racial divides? In a South African context, that really does represent the flip side because a single racial group is effectively being discriminated against. If you think about it that way, it does constitute reverse racism. And that is where things start to resemble an ethical minefield. I don’t think I am philosophically qualified to tackle the problem of whether the current flavour of affirmative action practised in South Africa is ethical, but I do want to look into the results of this reverse racism. Because it definitely has had an effect: a lot of white South Africans have left the country after the end of apartheid for this reason, amongst others. It is harder to find a job, especially if you are a young, white male with an Afrikaans surname. I am at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the affirmative action crapshoot. And a lot of qualified/skilled whites left the country in order to protect their children from that. And I say their children, because in many cases their positions weren’t under pressure, though many might have believed they were. And the effect is serious: I’ve heard rumours that Perth has a Dutch Reformed Church, for example. [Note: the traditionally dominant white Afrikaans church.] I don’t know how many South Africans have left the country in the last few years, but I am sure it’s an extraordinary number.

And to return to ggw’s original comment about sport, it’s even leaked in there. A number of young, white sportsmen have left the country because of affirmative action policies, and have gone on to make a name for themselves playing for other countries. Kevin Pietersen, who plays cricket for England (and was the Aussies’ only obstacle in the Ashes), and Clyde Rathbone, who plays rugby for Australia are two such examples. Both played their sports in South Africa for a year or two before moving abroad to pursue their careers. Rathbone actually captained the South African U21 rugby team to the 2002 U21 World Cup before leaving South Africa to play for the ACT Brumbies in Australia.

And that was unnecessary paragraph. But the more you know… the more you know. That is more than enough for now.


2 Responses to “Affirmative Action (Continued)”

  1. Andreas Says:

    Hey Dale, nice threat you’ve got going on the affirmative action issue. I really appreciate a lot of your comments.

    One of my worst things is hearing white South African men whine about affirmative action (and you’re very obviously not one of these… quite the opposite). I work at the University of Cape Town which is supposed to be one of the most “liberal” (whatever that means) institutions in the country (conservative critics used to call it “Moscow on the Hill”), yet the number of times I have to listen to these people moan about how poorly their kind is being treated at tea-time is astonishing (and obviously it’s not all white males, but enough of them).

    What bugs me the most is that they don’t seem to realise that during Apartheid days there was effectively massive “affirmative action” favouring white men themselves. And I don’t just mean job reservation for whites only etc., but preferential treatment in general. It’s a basic function of a racist society – the oppressors (in this case white people) will reserve the lion’s share of the society’s benefits for themselves. Those of my colleagues who complain now never seemed to question that set-up back then.

    Of course that sort of thing still exists in SA today with regards to women (and on other levels, too) as you mention in your post – in a patriarchal society, men, by definition will make sure that they always (or at least most of the time) come out on top… And all the while they think that that’s just the way things should be. It’s simply a subconscious acceptance of the racist, sexist (homophobic, ageist, classist, etc…) status quo.

    Sorry for ranting on a bit, but this type of thing bugs the shit out of me! There just don’t seem to be enough people like you around who give these things proper thought.

  2. ggwfung Says:

    Some strong points Dale. The government is there to make policy that benefits the greatest number of people. Sometimes there has to be compromise. But, as you well argue, if it’s a choice between empowering 90% of the populace versus slightly diminishing the status of the other 10%, there can be really no argument.

    We all hope for the day when race seeps out of consciousness and becomes a non-issue. Just all human beings trying to make their way through a confusing life.

    Many thanks again,


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