Whether we like it or not, or whether our present was envisioned like this or not, as South Africans we still identify with race as strongly as ever. We are far from being a colour blind society.
It is commonly accepted that we need to redress the imbalances of the past and increase diversity (‘diversity’ itself seems to be an overused word – do we still know what it really means?) in many aspects of life. And this is currently being done in a number of ways. From employment equity regulations requiring that the employment preference be given to individuals from the designated groups, to university entrance preference being given to people previously discriminated against. But does affirmative action policies have the intended consequences?
Affirmative action policies benefit educated black people with experience and education, as they are more likely to get a particular job than a competing white person. But on the other end of the scale, the employer is taking a bigger risk in hiring a person without a track record from a designated group for a low-income job, because if that person fails to perform it is legally more difficult to fire that person due to legislation. Because of this a qualified black professional is likely to earn more than an equally qualified white professional, whereas on the other side, an unqualified black person working an entry level job will probably be paid the same or even less than a white person doing the same job.
What about the economic consequences? Does affirmative action benefit all previously disadvantaged people?
The only way poor South Africans can be lifted out of poverty in a meaningful, long term way is through growth and development of the economy (welfare or nationalization (confiscation) of private property won’t produce meaningful, long term benefits). Economic productivity will create growth in terms of job opportunities and business opportunities. This seems simplistic, but it is true. This means having a free market where people can pursue their interests without restrictive regulations, or excessive taxes. Affirmative action regulations can often prevent the people best suited for a particular position from working in that position. If you have the best people in a particular job they can achieve more, and produce wealth at a greater rate than someone not as competent who were put in the position for political reasons. If we have more rapid economic development and growth, a wider range and a larger number of people can enter the middle class from a position of poverty, as there will be more employment and investment.
Apart from the abovementioned economic effects, the social effects should also be considered. Does the lower standards of achievement required of previously disadvantaged people create independence? Does affirmative action policies not simply serve to subsidize lower standards of performance? Whether it is university entry requirements, or workplace quotas, previously disadvantaged people do have an advantage (this is not to say that other people didn’t have an unfair advantage in the past). These policies create dependence and complacency. What if these policies were to ever end? Previously disadvantaged people will have become used to these lower standards, and will have to make a sudden adjustment to fit into a new, more open system.
An interesting comparison can be made to the United States’ affirmative action policies starting in the mid 60's. Despite decades of affirmative action policies, the income gap between black and white has remained constant, and if anything, many black people are worse off today. The rate of black children being born to single mothers has increased disproportionately compared to whites, as has the prison incarceration rate for African Americans. The proportion of black people on welfare has also increased disproportionately. Welfare creates dependence on the state as it discourages voluntary self-improvement. Research shows that once most people who start receiving welfare, they never stop receiving welfare, i.e. they never become productive in their own right. It is interesting how the Democratic Party in America is seen as the progressives leading the way in promoting minority rights (in the US, black people are a minority). Planned Parenthood (a government reproductive health organization), a democrat initiative, conducts nearly half of all abortions in America (300 000 of roughly 800 000 in 2010). Planned Parenthood’s clinics are predominantly found in minority communities, with a disproportionately high number of abortions being conducted on black women. Depending on your view on abortion, this could be considered genocidal. Very few people know that the Ku Klux Klan was also closely linked to the Democratic Party. It is the Democratic Party that initiated affirmative action in the US through president Johnson, although the Republicans helped to keep it alive. As such it is likely that affirmative action and welfare policies have had undesirable social consequences for those it was intended to benefit.
This is not to say that previously disadvantaged people can’t achieve success in their own right (as proponents of these policies seem to imply). Affirmative Action only seems to benefit those looking to enter tertiary education, or enter the work force, it does not benefit previously disadvantaged people on the whole. Affirmative action has only really benefitted people who probably didn’t need affirmative action in the first place. Affirmative action at best only redistribute jobs, it does not create new ones, meaning there is no net benefit to society.
People in our society seem to be obsessed with the word ‘equality’. Where does the word ‘equality’ come from? It’s original meaning was meant as “equality before God”, not equality in wealth, abilities or even happiness. True equality in a modern sense ought to mean ‘equal opportunity’. The best we can do is to treat people equally. We cannot make them equal.
But this is the pragmatic view of why affirmative action doesn’t work. Then of course there is the principle of the matter, where one can ask whether a system like this is fair or if it is morally justifiable?
It is said you can’t achieve good ends through bad means. Maybe it is necessary to reassess affirmative action policies and to remember that government policies should not be judged by their intentions, but by their outcomes.