Yesterday afternoon John Jeffrey, South African Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, delivered the South African government’s report on affirmative action to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
The presentation highlighted government’s successes in the elimination of poverty as well as its new legislation against hate speech. Jeffrey quoted amply from Thabo Mbeki’s “Two Nations” address, in which the one nation had been posited as rich and the other as poor. According to Jeffrey, progress was lacking in that respect. As to affirmative action, he focused on the “overrepresentation” of whites at senior job levels.
Baron Marc Bossuyt, President-Emeritus of the Belgian Constitutional Court and a member of the committee, responded by mentioning a misunderstanding about special measures (or affirmative action, as it is termed in America). It is generally accepted that merit has to play a role. It seems that, in the political arena, it is implemented in another way. The focus there is on quantitative rather than on qualitative outcomes. In South Africa, affirmative action is applied too severely by using the national demographics as formula.
It could still be justified at certain government entities but rigid measures in the economic and private sector, as well as in sport are absurd, Bossuyt said. “If you want to help people, it should be done on the basis of need and poverty and not on the basis of skin colour. This Convention wants to eradicate racism. The notion of representivity goes against the Convention. It could lead to a system similar to the former apartheid system.
Certain committee members indicated that the criteria for affirmative action are inadmissible under the Convention. The way in which it is being implemented is no less important than the goal. Race as sole criterion is not permissible. Other members of the committee were of the opinion that new forms of discrimination may not be allowed as no form of discrimination was indeed acceptable.
The committee was impressed by Solidarity for having shown the emergence of new forms of discrimination. Committee members were moved when they learnt about an Indian lady who could not be promoted as “their numbers were not right”. However, the committee’s main question was whether government had any intention of ever abolishing affirmative action policies, rightly warning that it could not continue indefinitely.
According to Solidarity Chief Executive Dirk Hermann, they are more than satisfied with the meeting and the reaction it elicited. “Today, we had a very constructive meeting with committee members. Our presentation yesterday and discussions during the private meeting resonated in the questions put by committee members. Our message is considered to be fresh and it gave the committee new perspective.”
Today between 10:00 and 13:00 the South African government will be responding to questions.