The need for non-racial affirmative action in employment –, 2 December 2014

Dec 02, 2014
South Africa has a moral obligation to address the wrongs of the past, but a race-based policy of affirmative action is an unjust and ineffective way of trying to achieve redress.

By Mark Oppenheimer and Cecelia Kok 

South Africa has a moral obligation to address the wrongs of the past, but a race-based policy of affirmative action is an unjust and ineffective way of trying to achieve redress.

‘Race’ is no longer an accurate proxy for disadvantage. Using race as a blunt instrument to determine who should be given preferential treatment by employers is likely to result in already privileged people receiving an unnecessary leg-up, while the genuinely disadvantaged are excluded.

In addition, there is a real risk that first-generation ‘black’ beneficiaries may act as ‘gate-keepers’ over race-based affirmative action. They may well have the wealth or the influence to ensure that the benefits of this policy go over and over again to themselves or their descendants, thus effectively excluding the majority of ‘black’ South Africans.

Race-based affirmative action may also deny the benefit of valuable skills to the people most in need of them. Hence, the main victims of race-based affirmative action are not the ‘whites’ who may be excluded from jobs but rather the ‘black’ and marginalised majority.

The indigent rely almost solely on the State for many basic services – including health care and schooling – because they generally cannot afford private schools or private hospitals. When the State’s services are less efficient than they should be due to racial quotas, the impact falls most heavily on the poor. So, instead of helping to eradicate disadvantage, the policy helps entrench it.

In addition, an affirmative action policy that is based on race also requires some form of racial classification to determine who counts as ‘black’ or ‘white’. But any such system is deeply undesirable, as it requires a return, in part at least, to the humiliating classificatory processes used in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa.

Race-based affirmative also undermines the achievements of those belonging to the preferred racial group. ‘Black’ people who have been selected for employment because they were the best qualified candidates are often forced to carry the stigma of having been chosen to meet a racial quota.

South Africa’s Constitution also requires that the country put behind it all that is reprehensible from its apartheid past. Classifying people according to the colour of their skin and then allocating benefits to them on this flawed basis are remnants of our history that are best left behind. This is all the more so when far more effective race-neutral remedies lie readily to hand.

South Africa should shift from its race-based system to an ‘equal opportunity’ form of affirmative action. This would encourage employers to reach out to disadvantaged individuals, eliminate all insidious forms of discrimination, and apply a more nuanced understanding of ‘merit’ in identifying the ‘best’ candidate.

This approach would bring about greater equality of opportunity, as its name suggests. It would promote sustainable upward social mobility for the truly disadvantaged, rather than the relative elite.

An incentive-driven ‘equal opportunity’ approach would be very different from the unrealistic and coercive system which now applies. Hence, a shift to this policy would also open the way to greater investment, faster growth, and many more jobs. This in turn would help reduce the widespread unemployment which is by far the greatest cause of poverty and inequality in South Africa today.

- Mark Oppenheimer and Cecelia Kok. Oppenheimer is an advocate and Kok an analyst. They are also the authors of a longer article published today in @Liberty, the policy journal of the IRR, and available on the IRR website.

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