The Ebony Ceiling and Affirmative Action

Reading the 11th Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) Annual Report, which details the status of employment equity in South Africa, I was reminded of a report that Dr Sabie Surtee and Professor Martin Hall wrote two years ago. In that report titled, ‘Transformation: African People in the Western Cape’, Dr Surtee and Professor Hall conclude that the labour market in South Africa remains “highly inequitable.” Two years later, the 11th CEE Annual Report makes similar claims. 


Both reports point out that whites dominate management positions in South Africa and that white people continue to be appointed and promoted in empowering positions in the workplace while blacks are constantly overlooked. The 11th CEE Report further argues that employers are more likely to employ white females and Indians from the designated groups “when compared to the African and Coloured population groups at nearly all occupational levels.” Needless to say, these employment practices maintain and perpetuate the racial hierarchy that defined the apartheid labour system. 


The inclusion of white women in the ‘designated groups’ of the employment equity act doesn’t make sense to me. Throughout the apartheid regime, white women enjoyed the very best of white privilege. Additionally, black feminists argue that through white men, white women have always had access to wealth and power in this country.


Although apartheid South Africa was a patriarchal society, white women, unlike black people in general, had access to good quality education; they could travel in and outside of South Africa, and they had black maids to help them with household chores. White women in South Africa are a very educated and powerful group and need not be seen as a group that has been previously economically disadvantaged. They are major beneficiaries of the apartheid system — a system that the United Nation declared to be a crime against humanity.  


In post-apartheid South Africa, white women play a slightly different role. White men, who dominate management positions in South Africa, prefer to employ white women as a way of holding society's wealth within the white community. It is, among other things, this sort of institutionalized racism that makes affirmative action ineffective in this country. Hence, Dr Surtee and Professor Hall could argue in 2009 – 15 years after the end of the apartheid system, that in the Western Cape, black employees do not get promoted through management ranks at an “appropriate rate.”


It was the realization of how ineffective affirmative action is that compelled the labour minister, Mildred Oliphant, to recently call for “drastic measures from all socio-economic partners” to change the status quo. The problem, however, is that some sections of society view affirmative action as “reverse racism.” These claims are often made despite the fact that research has shown that affirmative action opens doors that would otherwise remain shut for people of colour. Further, unlike affirmative action, racism is defined as a belief that one social group is inherently superior in abilities and moral standing compared to other social groups.    


There are also some people within civil society who argue that affirmative action perpetuates ‘racialism’ and therefore find it problematic. For instance, Neville Alexander argues that the government is capable of implementing affirmative action without using racial categories of the past. He writes that the government ought to use economic concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘income’ instead to determine people who is eligible for affirmative action. According to Alexander, race-based affirmative action goes against the “non-racial values, which are enshrined in Section 1(b) of the South African constitution.” 


To be honest I’ve never quite understood what non-racialism means as a concept and in practical terms. David Everatt, a South African academic, points out that a weakness of the liberation movement in South Africa was the failure to define non-racialism, “to give it content beyond that of a slogan or a self-evident ‘good thing’.” The way that non-racialism is used in present day South Africa seems to be informed by a desire to move away from using racial labels.


I understand that race, and therefore racial labels, are socially constructed. However, I am of the view that as long as people differ in physical appearance, or in their choice of religion or in their cultural beliefs for that matter, difference will forever be with us. Hence, the point should not be about fighting difference, but rather about fighting against oppression as well as racist and sexist institutions. After all, the goal is not to achieve a homogenous society, but to celebrate difference without violating solidarity and diversity. 


Instead of aiming to achieve non-racialism – an ill-defined concept – we ought rather to value diversity in the workplace, at schools and in other social places. To argue as if we could achieve diversity through the use of economic concepts such as class and income is to confuse matters. 


Like institutionalized racism, diversity originates from a different realm of society that has nothing to do with economics. The resistance to diversity is not mainly about economics, and so to suggest an economic based solution to the problem is to miss the point. Michael Albert, an American thinker, writes that there is nothing in neo-liberal economies’ defining institutions, which says that blacks or women should be treated differently to white men.

That sort of thinking is a legacy of colonial institutions that are bent on continuing the legacy of white supremacy and colonial mindsets, which remain intact in post-apartheid South Africa. What I mean by white supremacy and the colonial mindset is the belief that whites are somehow more capable than blacks, more diligent, better leaders and generally more intelligent than blacks. That is the logic that helps maintain racial hierarchies and oppression in post-apartheid South Africa. It may not be official state policy like it was during the apartheid regime, but the demise of the apartheid system does not mean that white people who have immense economic power in this country have suddenly adopted new ways of thinking about blacks.


As far as I can tell, this is what the statistics partly communicate. Research shows that 90% of CEO positions at JSE listed companies are still dominated by white males and as already mentioned; employers are most likely to employ white women. Similarly, former Model C schools where I live in Cape Town are still very much white enclaves.   


Affirmative action aims to challenge white supremacist thinking by disrupting the employment practices of enduringly colonialist institutions. It is not the most radical or revolutionary solution, but it is a good reform that aims to change people’s lives now. Additionally, race-based affirmative action challenges white supremacist notions that whites are better leaders or better scholars than blacks. It is necessary to challenge these colonial mindsets if we are serious about achieving diversity in the workplace and at schools. Only the most narrow-minded ideologues would fail to see that. 


Majavu is an activist, writer and a social scientist by training. He has written widely on topics relating to human rights, socio-economic issues, gender, and race.


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