Guest Column

Woolworths’s action disadvantages white and black

2012-09-07 12:40

Ernst Roets

With the Paralympics in the background, a message came up on my Twitter. It is a link to Ferial Haffajee’s article in defence of Woolworths’s discriminating advertisements for posts, which according to her, form part of a seemingly essential racially based affirmative action process, which will help make the country a better place. In the circumstances, I couldn’t help but recall the American writer “of colour”, Dinesh D’Souza’s description of affirmative action as a type of “Special Olympics” for blacks.

Haffajee paints an emotional picture of the black people in her class who, with their imperfect teeth, were inferior to the whites in class, they with their perfectly straight teeth. She comes to the conclusion that the playing field, 18 years post 1994, is still not level and that affirmative action is a necessity. She argues that affirmative action is not discrimination because it is enshrined in the Constitution (a non sequitur argument in my opinion), and continues her argument by typecasting Solidarity and AfriForum as obstacles in this regard and by comparing me with Julius Malema – ouch!

Haffajee’s perspective and that of the ANC, that poverty, unemployment and inequality constitute South Africa’s biggest problems, is not disputed. What is being disputed though, are the so-called solutions which are being proffered. Haffajee, together with the ANC, subscribes to the school of thought which believes in the promotion of formal equality, in contrast to substantive equality.

The difference is simple.

Different starting blocks

Those who believe in formal equality support affirmative action as solution. This is an outcomes based approach according to which the success of equality measures is measured by the formal outcome of the process – in this instance, if the labour market is “representative” (read 90% black).

In contrast, the supporters of substantive equality believe in training as solution. This is an input based approach according to which success is measured by the question of whether people can compete on an equal footing and can enter the labour market without being categorised into groups.

An outcomes based perspective on equality implies that for some the finishing post must be moved further away from the starting line to prevent the fittest athlete from winning. This is exactly what we are experiencing in South Africa at the moment, and Woolworths’s recent “blacks only” advertisement is a striking example. A sounder approach is to invest in training. It would imply that unfit athletes must be equipped with proper equipment (read training) to ensure that all can compete on a level playing field, thus eliminating the need for different starting lines (read race quotas).

Regardless of what Haffajee and the other quota supporters like Jimmy Manyi say, the implications of this manipulation of the winning posts are highly immoral, and could even be of catastrophic consequence to black South Africans.

“Black” or “disadvantaged”?

As City Press editor, Haffajee must surely be aware of the fact that a white police woman recently had to turn to the courts to convey the message that it is wrong to apply job reservation based on race. I don’t know if she is also aware of Basil Kourie, the ex South African, who is currently studying medicine at the University of Texas. Basil obtained 7 distinctions in matric and passed with an average of almost 90%. He was, however, rejected by every medical school in South Africa on the grounds of “inadequate academic performance” to make way for lesser-performing black matriculants. In order to comply with affirmative action requirements, the matriculants were admitted not because of their being disadvantaged but solely because they are black. Basil, on the other hand, was rejected not because of his being advantaged, but solely because he is white.

Similarly, I don’t know if she is aware of the white students who were not allowed to attend extra classes at the University of Pretoria, earmarked as “black only, or if she is aware of the list of institutions refusing to grant bursaries to white students on the grounds of race.

The reality is that white men only constitute about 4,5% of the population. If all white men were to be removed from the labour market at once, then 95,5% of the population would still not be accommodated.

Short sighted

It is myopic to argue in favour of affirmative action during a time in which South Africa is grappling with a huge education crisis. Last year, 348 117 learners passed matric, while 1 055 397 learners started Grade 1 twelve years ago. This means that less than 33% of 2000’s Grade ones have passed matric twelve years later, not to mention the burning of text books, the lowering of academic standards and the political meddling at schools and universities.

D’Souza voices concern about Americans’ black inferiority complex and refers to a type of Special Olympics to illustrate that affirmative action would entrench the complex rather than counter it. It is, according to him, a method of telling blacks to rather not compete with their white peers.

Woolworths can therefore exclude white staff until they are blue in the face. It will never make a contribution to solve this country’s inequality problem.

•    Ernst Roets is AfriForum’s Deputy CEO. Follow him on Twitter at @ernstroets.

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