Is the end in sight for AA?

2008-08-28 00:00

A potentially stimulating debate on whether a sunset clause should apply to affirmative action has been initiated in our body politic. This emanates from an announcement made by Kgalema Motlanthe, the newly appointed minister in the office of the presidency.

Speaking at a meeting with Afrikaans businessmen and farmers in Stellenbosch, he said the government would consider phasing out programmes of affirmative action (Business Report, August 22). He qualified this statement by adding that an end date could only be considered in certain aspects of the policy after careful scientific consideration.

In cases that have been contested successfully in the courts, unfair affirmative action has been found to be unlawful, not in the national interest and must inevitably obstruct racial reconciliation. It also adversely affects service delivery and contributes to a loss of skills. Motlanthe is prepared to face up to the problem, whereas the Minister of Labour, Membathisi Mdladlana, is apparently not since he is reported categorically to have declared that “he would not see the end of affirmative action in his lifetime”.

Motlanthe is the first national minister to suggest a possible shift in the attitude of the African National Congress (ANC) government to affirmative action. Bearing in mind that Motlanthe is also the deputy president of the ANC, this is politically significant.

If affirmative action is indeed contributing to a deterioration in service delivery and the corresponding exodus of highly coveted skills, as it is widely perceived to be doing, then we are confronted with a very real problem that needs to be seriously addressed and an in-formed and vigorous debate is urgently required in this regard.

We could learn from the experience of the United States, where Professor Ronald Dworkin has made a significant and novel contribution to the vexed debate on affirmation action. He challenges the compensation theory as the basis of affirmative action because “compensation is a matter of individual, not group entitlement, and allowing black applicants to have preference now cannot compensate generations of blacks in the past”.

In its place he proposes a forward-looking approach. It is claimed that this new approach is justified in order to improve society in ways that benefit society as a whole and therefore all its members. It involves a sensitivity to race “not on the basis of a compensatory theory, but on the pragmatic assumption that securing a better racial balance in positions of prestige and in-fluence benefits the community as a whole”.

The emphasis is therefore on the recognition of diversity, rather than on compensation for past injustice. It takes into ac-count a range of factors, including the possibility that arbitrary and crude affirmative action programmes blindly aimed at compensation at all costs must impact negatively on the government’s ability to deliver and also that they invariably violate the human dignity of those individuals and groups of persons discriminated against by such programmes.

There are influential people in the tri-partite alliance, who are implacably opposed to any change in the affirmative action policy. This is exemplified by Patrick Craven, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) spokesperson who is reported to have said there is no change of policy since “we still believe that affirmative action is necessary as the redistribution of wealth is moving at a snail’s pace” (Business Report, August 22). However, the debate relating to affirmative action should most certainly not involve “all or nothing” (Business Day, August 26). Something far more sophisticated is necessary. The vital question is whether the way in which it is applied is causing more harm to the economy and service delivery than benefit. Consequently it must be established how it could be changed to retain what is essential to redress the wrongs and legacy of the past without causing serious damage to service delivery and the economy.

The way forward could involve the appointment of a commission to evaluate the position and make recommendations after “careful scientific consideration”, as suggested by Motlanthe. Such an approach to affirmative action would require a measure of political maturity, as demonstrated by Motlanthe’s comments. Can we as a nation rise to the occasion?

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