First Published in Rapport, December 2013
My friend Waldimar (the Rapport Editor) asked me if I wanted my children to grow up in a world of Employment Equity (EE) and all the quotas and acronyms that comes with it.
It’s a profound question. One that implies an inherent threat posed by this EE.
Increasingly black people who like me are upwardly mobile, well travelled, well spoken in English, highly skilled and unquestionably employable are casting off the Affirmative Action tag.
“It’s not Affirmative Action, it’s me” we argue. And to be frank, folks like this have put in the hours in school and the office to demand their middle to upper class salaries.
Could Employment Equity be a threat to the black professional? A devaluation of our true commercial worth? A handicap, such that we always explain ourselves “I am actually quite good at my job” or even a disclaimer “Hey, I’m no EE!”
While it maybe a nuisance to anyone forgetting that smarts and skill in the dark old days still meant a menial job, it’s hardly a threat – for Blacks.
And for whites? We know many white people see Affirmative Action as a threat to their children’s future ability to find a job.
Whilst the world grapples with unemployment – globally jobs are growing at 0.1% per annum versus population growth of 10% – and the unemployability of even graduates, here in South Africa it’s another reason to blame the other race. Blacks are unemployed because whites won’t hire them. Whites can’t get jobs because of this Evil Employment Equity.
Within this context, sure, if I was white, I wouldn’t want Affirmative Action in my children’s lifetime. And I’d fight as hard as many liberals who claim to support “redress for Apartheid” have and continue to fight against it.
But let’s step back and look at some numbers for a moment. Whilst the number of black people who are employed has doubled since 1994, a black South African is four times more likely to be unemployed than a white person today. Even with those 50/50 work place quotas and stuff.
Isn’t that because there’ just more blacks? Not quite. You see three-quarters of top management in South Africa are white. The average white family will earn four to six times more than a black family.
Numbers don’t lie.
But numbers by themselves don’t reveal their narrative. They don’t tell the story of a “colour bar”, a racial quota applied across all sectors ensuring that only white people got into management, regardless of experience or qualification.
This colour bar was passed into law in 1911 and remained in place until the end of Apartheid 81 years later.
Here we sit, two decades after EE is introduced to provide an opposing counter-balance to the colour bar, and argue about the scrapping of EE.
It could be argued that due to the compounding effect of the colour bar EE doesn’t go far enough – why not 60% or 70% for a 100 years just to be completely fair?
I hear you think that the colour bar wasn’t the fault of white kids today, even as their grandparents voted for people that enacted and enforced it.
Likewise it wasn’t the fault of black kids today that their teachers and in turn their teachers were trained in bantu education, introduced in 1953 to ensure black people receive an inferior education such that they only aspire to manual labour jobs. Today the majority of black kids are shut out from the work place because “they do not have the skill”. Of course not, we made sure of that 60 years ago.
Certainly our govt hasn’t covered itself in glory in fixing education, meaning the gap of privileged that the past created hasn’t just been maintained, it has widened.
Bottom line – It is easier for white kids to get and keep a good job than it is for black kids. Trust me, I was a black kid once.
So, I suppose the question for me isn’t if I want my two black kids to look for work in a world of quotas, but rather do I want them to grow up in a South Africa where Affirmative Action is still necessary.
Herein lies the rub, those of us, mostly whites, who want to scrap affirmative action have the power to make it irrelevant.
How? Well, end the passive aggressive resistance to the policies, invest in skills and development in areas you probably never go, take a leap of faith and hire a black professional into your own business, rather than people in your inner circle.
Basically, strive for real equity, and thereby stave off “visiting iniquity of the fathers upon the children”.
Photo credit: Karthik Ponnusamy (as in, no, that’s not my kid)