The true actions of affirmative action

By Cilleste van der Walt

One of the biggest dilemmas that South Africa’s democracy has faced since its inception is redistribution and the enforcement of affirmative action that must inevitably be balanced with the constitutional imperative of nation building and the fundamental rights of every South African citizen.

According to Dr Dirk Hermann, Deputy General Secretary of Solidarity, the heated debate raging for the past decade between the supporters and opponents of the current affirmative action model is still mounting in intensity, as increasing emphasis is placed on race and ethnicity as a result of the political and socio-economic effects of the current model.

‘Affirmative action has succeeded in creating a small black middle class and elite who benefit from both affirmative action and black economic empowerment,’ Dr Hermann added.  He says the largest part of the black community still lives in abject poverty and has not seen any of the benefits that affirmative action is supposed to deliver. Instead, affirmative action is fuelling racial tension and the polarisation and alienation of groups in South Africa – something the country can hardly afford, given its stormy history. The current affirmative action model is in dire need of rethinking and remodelling if we as a society are to succeed in uplifting the majority of previously disadvantaged people living in South Africa today. Overall, the present enforcement of affirmative action according to the ANC’s ideology of representation has caused white people to feel increasingly alienated – almost as if they are second-class citizens in their own country.

‘The harsh implementation of affirmative action along racial lines is leading to increasing polarisation, with white people on the one side and the beneficiaries of affirmative action on the other. Alienation causes a feeling of isolation, and as a result, affirmative action increases racial tension instead of promoting integration between groups.

‘The headlong enforcement of affirmative action has already dealt a staggering blow to the state’s ability to deliver effective services to the public. As no provision was made for the retention of skills during the transformation of the public service sector, the resulting skills shortage contributed and continues to contribute to the decline of public services. Ultimately, ordinary citizens – ironically, in most cases, black people – are disadvantaged by the impetuous and rigid enforcement of affirmative action,’ Dr Hermann said.

On the economic front, it is evident that in the years since the ANC came to power, a clear black middle class and black elite have come into existence, largely owing to affirmative action and black economic empowerment.

Prof. Sipho Seepe, formerly of the South African Institute of Race Relations, argues as follows: ‘Affirmative action will not benefit the illiterate and poor people in the rural, remote areas. Formulated as it stands, affirmative action can only benefit those with the skill to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the new dispensation.’

At the centre of these challenges is the shortage of critical skills as well as population growth, especially among black people.

According to Dr Hermann, the Solidarity Movement recognises that rectifying inequality is necessary in principle. The challenge lies in ensuring that the truly disadvantaged people are benefited by affirmative action and that new inequality is not created.

‘The main objective of the Solidarity Movement’s initiatives with regards to affirmative action is to have the current model of affirmative action revised drastically. Solidarity has drafted an amendment bill setting out its proposals for the revision of affirmative action, which was submitted to Parliament. In the proposed amendment, a number of changes to standing legislation are recommended and thoroughly motivated.

‘South Africa is by no means unaffected by the global shortage of skills. The local major shortage of all types of artisans, accountants and other finance professionals, IT professionals, engineers, scientists, architects, draughtsmen, teachers, medical staff, forensic specialists, pilots and aviation technicians reflects the worldwide demand of skills in these fields.

’With the exception of certain kinds of artisans, the mentioned categories all require tertiary qualifications for which mathematics and/or science are common prerequisites. This situation cannot be remedied by employment equity measures, since improvements should first be made in the primary and secondary education system. If more black learners excel in the required subjects, employment equity will come about without the need for external intervention. In other words, good education prevents the intergenerational transfer of poverty.’

Solidarity on affirmative action

• Special measures to address the inequalities in the South African society are needed, but these measures must strike a balance between nation building and equality as constitutional imperatives;

• Central to these amendments stands the belief that the focus of equal employment opportunity should shift from being output focused (racial targets in accordance with the ideology of representation) to being input focused (skills development);

• A responsible debate on a national level regarding affirmative action is of the utmost importance.

Solidarity addresses letter to DCS Minister

The excessive spending of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) on consultants emanates directly from the department’s affirmative action plan which is obsessed with absolute racial representation at the expense of effective service delivery.

In a letter addressed to the minister of this department, Sibusiso Ndebele, Solidarity asked that a moratorium be placed on the implementation of affirmative action in the department so that vacant posts can be filled and the loss of skills prevented.

In the letter to the minister, Solidarity’s department of occupational health and safety also expressed its concern for the safety of employees of the DCS, following recent incidents where inmates attacked prison guards.

Meanwhile, Solidarity also announced that the trial of the court case against the department’s controversial affirmative action plan will take place in the Labour Court in Cape Town from 24 April to 5 May 2013. Solidarity acts on behalf of ten of its members and argues that its members should receive promotions and that the affirmative action plan of the DCS should be declared invalid in its entirety.

Visit for more information regarding Solidarity’s involvement in various affirmative action hearings.


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