Endorsing intellectual development in South Africa's affirmative action.

Author:Matambo, Emmanuel
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Report


After the end of apartheid, South Africa was saddled with a lot of responsibility. The new political dispensation had to redress protracted racial injustice. In 2014, South Africa celebrated two decades of democracy and attempted racial integration after more than three hundred years of white domination and racial injustice. Under the generic phrase of "racial injustice" are found its particular but equally sinister manifestations of political, economic and social inequalities. (1) Over the last two decades, the post-apartheid South African government has made immense efforts to redress these inequalities. The time is ripe for South Africa to engage in a sober assessment of what has happened in the last twenty years of South Africa's post-apartheid reconstruction effort. This is to value, relinquish or tinker with, certain policies that are geared towards promoting national unity and equality. There are a number of initiatives that the new political dispensation devised in order to achieve some sort of redress after years of racial stratification.

Affirmative action is one of the policies through which South Africa seeks to excise racial inequalities through a strategic racial favoritism that favors previously disadvantaged groups. The moral intent of affirmative action cannot be besmirched. Previously disadvantaged groups have justifiable claims to better opportunities in the aftermath of apartheid, and the new political elites have a moral and legal responsibility to make good the promises of the new South Africa. Furthermore, affirmative action is not exclusive to South Africa; it has been justified and applied in other nations as well. While justifying the American case of affirmative action, Appiah asserts that "morally acceptable procedures sometimes take account of the fact that a person is a member of a certain (i.e. previously disadvantaged) social group". (2) The 1965 speech that President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered at Howard University, the illustrious Black American institution at the time, was a landmark in the history of affirmative action. The president rued the widening gap between the between black and white unemployment rates and income. (3) President Johnson further emphasized that crucial steps were needed to bring black Americans to an acceptable form of existence in comparison to the historically favored white people. It was not enough to merely give black people the franchise and to grant them other civil triumphs without acknowledging the fact that they were on a more desperate footing than their white compatriots. Affirmative action was then mooted as a framework through which black people could access opportunities that were previously the preserve of the white populace.

A similar scenario plays out in contemporary South Africa, where black people suffer the ills of historical injustices. By favoring disadvantaged groups, affirmative action in South Africa presents an avenue for South Africa to attain national unity, reconciliation and equality by bridging the gap between the previously advantaged and disadvantaged groups. It is realistic to note that South Africa cannot be expected to completely solve three hundred years of racial inequalities and stratification in just two decades. The remarkable work that the African National Congress (ANC) government has done through its post-apartheid reconstruction measures cannot be gainsaid. The post-apartheid leadership has managed to transform South Africa from an international pariah into a viable business and investment destination. (4) Under the auspices of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), more houses have been erected for previously disadvantaged groups that lacked decent shelter. The practice of affirmative action has helped to somewhat empower disadvantaged groups economically, socially and politically. (5)

The practice, however, has also being criticized for its poor and myopic execution. Most of the people who took over power immediately after apartheid were either exiles or prisoners for a significant part of their adult lives and had no adequate administrative experience to run a country. The affirmative action propagated by these ruling elites has been dismissed as a "tokenist" vehicle because the mode of its implementation has bolstered the status of few black elites while the poor have remained poor. (6) Neocosmos talks of the "black diamond" as a newly favored black cabal "whose new-found wealth is not particularly geared towards national accumulation and development but primarily towards short-term, quick profits in a country where estimates put the poor at half the total population". (7) Johnson (2009) asserts that the public sector was swiftly transformed in South Africa because it guaranteed jobs and income right away. This seemed more amenable, Johnson continues, than a broader-based project of attending to the development, training and education needs of black people; a project which was deemed "too gradual" a strategy for the new leadership. (8)

Without detracting from the estimable urgency to empower previously disadvantaged groups, this article argues that more emphasis should be channeled to intellectual development. This would guarantee a more qualified and efficient presence of previously disadvantaged people in different sectors of democratic South Africa. It is observed that the focus of redress has been mainly on economic and political inclusion to the detriment of intellectual and skills development. Education, however, serves as a long-term support which South Africa needs to surmount its current woes and those that were inherited from the past. The current practice of changing the face of governance and workforce from 'white' to 'black' will remain a cosmetic change if it does not translate into fundamental changes and proffer no assurance of development and hope for the future of South Africa. For the good of previously disadvantaged groups and the country as a whole, a long-term strategy with focus on training and education is imperative. The specter of race will continue to haunt South Africa if there are indications that racial appeasement and political charity have supplanted merit in the new political climate.

To this end, the following section sets the scene of the article by considering the formal understanding of affirmative action and the odious measures of apartheid which made affirmative action a moral necessity in the immediate post-apartheid South Africa. The third section examines issues with the operationalization of affirmative action in South Africa. The fourth part of the article gives some possible reasons why the current practice of affirmative action in South Africa attracts so much criticism. In this section, Frantz Fanon's Pitfalls of National Consciousness found in his The Wretched of the Earth (1961) is used to explain the possible psyche of untamed and myopic implementation of affirmative action and how this could likely drive the new South Africa to the precipice. The article culminates with a conclusion and recommendations which give an overview of the relevance and necessary focus areas of affirmative action policy in South Africa.


The South African Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998 defines affirmative action as "measures designed to ensure that suitably qualified people from designated groups have equal employment opportunities and are equitably represented in all occupational categories and levels in the workforce of designated employers". Designated groups refer to black people, women and individuals with disabilities. As explained by the Employment Equity Act, "Black people" is a generic term comprising Africans, Coloreds (mixed race) and Indians who were previously disadvantaged. In this regard, Affirmative action requires an employment-wise favor for previously disadvantage groups. The responsibility to implement affirmative action befalls designated employers i.e. persons or institutions that employ more than 50 personnel or less than 50 but able to generate a stipulated annual income turnover. In South Africa, the biggest employer is the public sector and hence the biggest duty to execute affirmative action resides with the government. (9) In order to appreciate the motive for affirmative action, it is politic to give a brief perspective of the policies that were stacked against black people during apartheid.

Though black South Africans were subjugated even long before the twentieth century, it was the policy of apartheid, formulated in 1948 with the accession of the National Party (NP) to power, which obliquely supported the long-held belief that blacks are inferior to whites and should be treated as such. Goldberg describes apartheid as the policy of racial naturalism in comparison to racial historicism. (10) The latter does not actually legitimize the subjugation of other races; it can discourage equal interaction between races but not formalize it. Racial naturalism, on the other hand, legitimizes white supremacy over other races and this was the driving force for apartheid. During the reign of the National Party (from 1948 to 1994), South Africa was structured around a plethora of laws that undermined the humanity of the non-white population. The Immorality Act of 1957 prohibited marital and sexual relations between whites and nonwhites to keep the white volk pure and untainted by the blood of "lower" races, non-whites. (11) To suppress opposition movements that were against apartheid laws, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1953 was established to prohibit public opposition to any apartheid law. (12) Added to these acts, major liberation movements like the South African Communist Party (SACP), the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were proscribed. This prohibition reduced legal political channels through which anti-apartheid sentiment could be advanced.


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