How do we find a balance?

2009-07-31 00:00

A LEADING Sunday newspaper recently ran an interview about affirmative action with the chairperson of the Employm­ent Equity Commission, Jimmy Manyi. In the course of the interview, Manyi said that affirmative action will be needed until “we have 87% black people at all levels”.

When asked if this meant insisting that 87% of the country’s chartered accountants should be black, he agreed. Presumably Manyi believes that the same must apply to any other profession. After all, it makes no sense just to single out the account­ancy profession.

My concern in today’s article is not, however, with affirmative action as such, but with the 87% target for workplace equity. This percentage comes from the idea that overcoming the evils of our past in our employment situations means using demographic representivity as our benchmark. Since black South Africans constitute around 87% of our people and whites the other 13%, we will only have overcome the injustices of the past when the employment profile of our professions reflects those proportions.

I applaud and totally share Manyi’s dedication to employment equity. But I don’t think his is the right way to achieve the goal of non-racial justice in the workplace. I fear that, on deeper analysis, it turns out to be unconstitution­al, unfair and based on a conceptual muddle. I have argued along similar lines in the past about sports quotas based on demographic representivity. Today, my focus is on the workplace.

The conceptual muddle is the root of the problem. It arises when we treat activities where we have freedom of choice, like careers, with those where we do not. Consider some examples starting with our population breakdown of 87% black people and 13% whites. Nobody chose this breakdown. It came about becau­se of natural and historical forces.

Next, let us consider something we have chosen: a new South African era of justice and equality for all, with resultant measures like affirmative action to help those who were so unjustly treated in the past. We have also chosen compulsory schooling up to a certain level for all our children. That makes it logical and fair to expect that around 87% of school-level pupils should be black.

Careers are different because freedom of choice enters the situation. The freedom is limited by the availability of jobs and other factors, but is still a reality, so that we would rightly think the government had taken leave of its senses if it proposed legislation to force a given percenta­ge of school leavers to become nurses, plumbers or priests, or for given numbers of our black and white populations to go into those careers. Such legislation would violate the freedom that is a cornerstone of our Bill of Rights.

Not being trained in law, I sought top legal guidance about this matter in connection with sport and received clear confirmation. Does the same not hold for our professions? In my own sphere of applied ethics I have no doubt that to demand that no more than 13% of our chartered accountants, doctors, engineers, receptionists, farmers or fire-fighters be white would be to discriminate unfairly in favour of some and against others. That makes it unethical.

If we can’t validly use demographic representivity as the benchmark for justice and equity in the workplace, above all not in a rigid way, what can we use? Do we need anything numeric­al at all? If we do, to my mind we should seek a benchmark that is based on freedom of choice. Even so, I doubt whether we could come up with anything better than a very rough-and-ready guideline.

Perhaps readers of The Witness can suggest possible benchmarks, or come up with persuasive arguments — and not mere rhetoric — in support of the 87%.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant, an emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and author of Conscience: ethical intelligence for global well-being, published by the UKZN Press.

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