Ferial Haffajee

I am an AA beneficiary

2010-06-30 10:45

Tsjoe! My column last week called Should I stay or should I go? elicited a flurry of comments and debates within debates.

I was humbled by the stories of readers who told of their experiences of the horrific and everyday crime that had been the final push factor on the migration checklist.

I hope we can "speak" further about migration and notions of identity and home in the coming weeks, but this week I want to acknowledge and own up to being a proud affirmative action beneficiary. Yes, a real live black woman who couldn’t do it on her own but needed a leg-up. Many of the comments left last week carry a sub-text that says my writing is soporific and that the only reason News24’s editor, Jannie Momberg, lets me onto this hallowed space is because I am black.

Given the melanin deficient ranks of opinion columns here, I now realise that Jannie may not have asked me to write because of a refined turn of phrase.

In fact, you are write. My spelling is atrocouos and my grammar. Even worse. I’ve got a long way to go.

Unlike other beneficiaries who defensively say, “I am not an AA candidate” because they feel that it’s insulting and patronising, let’s get the conversation real. If it had not been for the Constitution and its provision for an employment equity law to fix years of apartheid oppression, I would not be enjoying this fine online sophistication but be forking out for the Daily Sun, that brilliant paper of the working classes.

In Bosmont where I grew up, our paths were predestined down a blue-collar path. The way Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, had it planned was that so-called coloured folk were not to be hewers of wood and drawers of water like black South Africans.

Nope, our destiny was to go to work in the clothing factories when we still had a clothing industry because the siege economy was quite good at manufacturing things that nobody else would sell to them.

Or to become a teller at the bank but to never set your eye on being a manager, oh no. Or to leave school in Grade 10, go to a teachers college and become an often, but not always, useless teacher so that our communities reproduced virtuous cycles of factory fodder.

Luckily, I had pushy parents who were factory workers but thought their kids might do better and scrimped and saved to get us to varsity. At Wits University, the left-wing Marxists and liberals who ran the place altered destinies by setting up new dreams for young people like me who got in on the quota system which allowed a sprinkling of blacks to go to white universities.

One of them was a graduate called Anton Harber who decided to set up his own newspaper, the Weekly Mail. When offered a decidedly affirmative action place on his training programme, I accepted it with open arms. To those of you who wondered last week how on earth I became an editor, you’re right: that was an affirmative action job too. Mail&Guardian owner Trevor Ncube thought I could turn a phrase but it helped that I was a black and female.

Without these equal opportunities, without the vision of people who realised that hands-up were needed, without the employment equity laws and our Constitution, where would most middle-class black people be? Without that black spending power, would this economy have enjoyed the growth spurt of the early 21st century?

At some point I decided that two affirmative action jobs were gift enough so I would not take another on those grounds. I am affirmed and free and want to compete equally in any future for any position. Yes, there are many skills to learn and much to burnish, but the opportunities to self-provide now exist.

When young black professionals hop from job to job because it’s possible to demand higher and higher packages, you shut out new graduates and entrants and give employment equity a bad name.  Moreover, it shrinks the pool of equal opportunity and there is an ocean of need among black graduates upon whose shoulders rest the dreams of future generations and the bread and butter needs of the present one.

I hope that because I’ve been honest and acknowledged my hand-up the ladder, I can ask a question of those readers who have such a venomous outlook on empowerment.

What was your destiny? What was your home circumstance: a property owned by your parents, aftercare or an at-home mum, a car when you turned 18, a trust fund to secure inherited wealth?

Three proper meals and packed school lunches? Good doctors and dentists? Did you go to a school, whether private or public, with good teachers and sports fields; perhaps even properly equipped science labs? A varsity near home or one away that was your choice?

I’m sure there were exceptions, I know there has always been a sizeable white working class, but on the whole, the world of white South Africans was one of middle-class respectability and comfort where inter-generational wealth transfers meant that there was always support to achieve your best and a cushion when times were tough.

Such systemic privilege was the outcome of a huge affirmative action programme and the only way we will break the destructive and damaging debates we have about employment equity and black economic empowerment is to recognise that a hand-up for those left behind is the right thing to do.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

Send your comments to Ferial

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