Time to end affirmative action...

2009-10-10 12:59

LET’S start at the beginning, when talk of redistribution and the transfer of assets as featured in the Freedom Charter were ­replaced by the much softer concepts of affirmative action and its cousin, economic empowerment.

The Congress Alliance then agreed to the much lesser version of what it wanted, because it did not acquire the state through the barrel of a gun but by FW de Klerk’s negotiation initiative. As (political activist and ­educationalist) Neville Alexander once said, affirmative action made the sellout more palatable.

The main argument for introducing the concepts was to ensure that individuals denied access to educational, training and entrepreneurial opportunities now had them, and could make something of them.

State bodies, universities and companies have yielded volumes of tables using apartheid-style nomenclature but nobody has answered the fundamental question, which is: What did people make of the new ­opportunities?

We designed no longitudinal research to do this, so instead we live and govern by anecdote. Here is a common one: in instances where quotas were used, which is what most institutions use, where so many positions were set aside for this or that group based on some mechanically constructed hierarchy of past discrimination, many poorly qualified and barely competent individuals were appointed to jobs they could not do. I bet that every person with management experience can think of an example.

As chairperson of a public-benefit, non-government organisation I once had to support the chief executive in dealing with an affirmative action appointment in marketing that did not work. The chief executive tried moving the appointee around but it was costly. He couldn’t bear to fire him, which is what he should have done. It was not fair to the person or the organisation.

Here is another anecdote: in order to fulfil affirmative action requirements qualified white individuals in engineering were not appointed, resulting in the failure to deliver necessary sanitation services in the Western Cape. The failure to appoint white engineers meant that the black poor did not get services like sanitation, which require engineering skills. It is as perverse as it is sickening. A country lacking in skills and finances cannot provide its citizens with basic services like water or ­toilets.

To his credit, MP Marius Fransman once questioned the ANC’s policies on affirmative action precisely for this reason when he was Western Cape MEC, but the ANC quickly slapped him ­into place. The party has some strange, dogged obsession with sticking to policies that simply do not work. Practical people change things that do not work.

A third anecdote: Rather than benefiting the previously disadvantaged, people with influence and muscle abused the system by getting jobs and tenders for pals. Affirmative action jobs became another round of opportunity for those who had the education, communication networks and family connections to have first bite at the cherry. It creates inbreeding of a special type. On the black empowerment share-schemes and tendering fronts it is about meeting government requirements rather than creating real ­opportunity.

A final anecdote: there are thousands of individuals, including South Africans, who benefited from the true purpose of affirmative action, which is to give special support to talented individuals who come from families that cannot ­afford to send their children to training institutions.

As a trustee of the New York-based Ford Foundation between 1996 and last year, I looked after the $320?million (about R2.4?billion) International Fellowships Programme that specially looked for candidates with talent from indigenous communities worldwide. Joan Dassin, who runs the programme, did not use quotas or anthropological categories, her management teams went out and recruited the talented students. More than 5?000 have graduated with masters and doctors degrees.
We did not create a research project in the 1990s to give us the facts, so what do we do?

I suggest we go back to first principles: the point is to provide individuals with opportunities they would not otherwise have or who could not afford to get access to them; we must redefine disadvantage in current terms, which is on class and no longer the race of a person; and we must at all times ensure that there is a pipeline of candidates.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), of which I was chairperson for four years, provides a fascinating example: it had lots of women musicians but few black ones. There is one standard of excellence for ­orchestral music and it takes anywhere between five to eight years and more for individuals with talent to meet it.

Under Louis Heyneman’s guidance the CPO created two youth ­orchestras: a youth wind ensemble and a young orchestra.
The recruiting ground for talent is the townships. After three years the quality is good enough for the youth orchestras to occasionally play with the full orchestra and – as it must be with creating the pipeline – the best are ready to join the orchestra full-time. The national lottery funds the programme.

And yes, Pallo Jordan put arts and culture money and not-so-subtle pressure on the orchestras to experiment with different models of empowerment and it worked.

So abandon racial quotas immediately and set up organised ­systems of finding talent. For those who cannot afford the training, use class-based means testing to financially support them to get the best education our country can offer.

Put together panels for research and track what happens to the beneficiaries over their lifetimes.

Hire on merit using single, universally applied measures of excellence.

Our country would be a better and much happier place.
James is a Member of Parliament and DA shadow minister for higher education and training

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