There have been quite a few interesting and informative posts about affirmative action policies and their impacts on this site recently. This resulted in the generation of many anguished and heartfelt comments from readers, especially in regard to Ferial Haffajee’s piece. I read her remarks and the subsequent responses, and wanted to add what I feel might be a fresh perspective. It might also be a rather unique one, as I am a person of colour who grew up under apartheid and have now spent the other half of my life in a more progressive society.
I do not agree with Ferial’s view, although I do know what it is like to grow up with a lack of confidence (I know that many of you-black, white or any hue-have felt that way at some point in your lives). Apartheid undoubtedly inflicted severe wounds on South African society. The people who were harmed the most were people of colour. So when a new nation was born, the mass of people who needed urgent infrastructure and opportunities were those originally classified as African, Coloured and Indian. However, not all people in these groups were poverty-stricken. And there were plenty of White people who were poor as well. This raises a dilemma that is not unique to South Africa. Many countries have disparities in relation to ethnic, class, tribal, caste and other differences. Their ability to achieve socially equitable outcomes depends on leadership, institutional capacity and societal expectations.
Despite the implementation of reservation quotas since independence in 1948, India has been unable to overcome its caste divisions and inequities. The government and private sector is still controlled by the upper castes, and daily atrocities against people considered ‘untouchables’ still occurs. Sri Lanka instituted policies to benefit the majority Sinhala population at independence. A devastating civil war was the result. Malaysia has official discrimination to favour the Malay ‘bumiputeras’ (‘sons of the soil’), resulting in the mass exodus of skilled Indian and Chinese citizens and terrible racial divisions at home. Neighbouring Singapore has fared better because all racial groups are catered for in government policy.
The countries that are more successful in achieving equality tend to be those that do not demarcate government assistance according to ethnicity or language. Their societies tend to favour egalitarianism, and their governments actively promote this ethos. Canada, Australia and many European countries are good examples. Some people may deride them as ‘nanny states’. My response would be ‘how safe do feel from your hungry (and angry) fellow citizens in your non-nanny state?’ In Australia, the government provides assistance according to one’s socio-economic status. All claims are means-tested. In education, the federal government provides loans to all undergraduate and postgraduate students, and gives a substantial allowance to help those in need with expenses while studying. Good quality healthcare is free to all under the Medicare scheme. Discrimination in job advertising and in the workplace is illegal. The distribution of opportunity is strengthened by strong leadership, efficient government delivery and a society that values equality of opportunity.
The result: due to this scheme, I was able to attend the best university in Australia (no. 57 in the world), attain a BSc., Dip. Ed. and a Masters in Urban Planning, and have substantial employment opportunities. My son was born in a government hospital, and we all receive free medical treatment. We live peacefully and easily with our neighbours and within our communities. We have been helped, and we are happy to contribute to others realising their dreams. Ferial, you are right about the awful inequalities that exist in South Africa, but there are better ways to fix the problems. In fact, I would argue that if people there were to dispense with race-based thinking, it would be a good start. I am not arguing that we gloss over the realities of discrimination. Rather I say that we acknowledge these and move towards a more objective and just system of repairing the damage done. That’s a win-win situation for everybody.