Why affirmative action still matters: Thandiwe Matthews

2012-09-15 12:41

There is a lack of understanding of the ­realities of being black, not only in South Africa but the world in general

I am a young, black woman and would like to share my experience about why affirmative action is necessary.

I was born in 1983 and was privileged to attend a Model C primary school in 1991 when my family moved to the suburbs.

I was raised on the philosophy of black consciousness by parents who themselves were successful because they grew up believing they could be anything they wanted in spite of apartheid.

After completing my matric, I did my undergraduate degree with the University of Cape Town and an LLB at the University of Witwatersrand. I didn’t have to take out a study loan because my parents could ­afford to pay for my education.

I received a car – also paid for – at 19.

I then completed my articles at one of South Africa’s leading commercial law firms and am now completing my master’s in The Hague, Netherlands.

I live a privileged middle-class life. Why would someone like me require affirmative action? The answer is simple. While I may have grown up in a multicultural environment, my employer did not.

Those (largely white men) who ­employed me may still hold racist views based on the society they grew up in. They may not be susceptible to change, and so need legislation to force change.

Lest we forget that affirmative ­action is intended to rectify past inequalities, which includes the ­employment of white women and disabled persons, and, ­unfortunately, many companies used this “loophole” and in the process continued to marginalise primarily black ­people from being employed.

I acknowledge the benefits of living a privileged life. I was easy to employ ­because I spoke well and dressed well. In fact, I had travelled abroad from the time I was only three years old.

Living in Europe for a year now, I have noticed the ease at which I am able to move because I grew up in a “white” world. I have been able to adapt with ease ­because I do not look like an outsider ­despite my darker skin. The same cannot be said for all my fellow Africans who face constant humiliation, despite their ­impressive qualifications.

What people don’t seem to acknowledge is that apartheid was geared at ­making the life of white people easier.

So when they, in turn, say that affirmative action will create a society of entitlement, not only does that insult my fellow colleagues (with a darker skin) who work equally as hard, but had it not been for affirmative action would not be sitting where they are. That also ­insults people who travel for hours to earn a salary that will not even provide them with a decent life.

By saying to people that they need to get over apartheid, the speaker ignores the blatant inequality that still exists in our society, not only because of the inefficiency of our government but the structural inequality this administration ­inherited from that evil system.

Are all whites who oppose affirmative action racist? I do not think so. I think there is a lack of understanding of the ­realities of being black, not only in South Africa but the world in general.

I am the exception and not the norm, and until I become the norm, I will continue to support affirmative action.

» Matthews is an attorney and is currently completing her master’s degree in development, specialising in human rights, development and social justice at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague 

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