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.

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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.