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The stigma of affirmative action

16 January 2013, 18:37

I am turning 40 years this year, yes the big four- and-nothing; oh, the joys of aging! I think I am starting to understand the claims that life begins at forty, but apparently so does mid-life crisis.

My nature is that I am a reflective thinker, which I will simply term reflector for the rest of this piece. So, I found myself reflecting on my achievements; I also started pathing a way forward for my life (business, personal or otherwise).

Reflecting on my career, I got thinking of the two era’s the country has transitioned through, over the past few decades. I have a very vivid memory; on the odd days, I think such a memory is a curse but generally I think it is a blessing.  In my 20 years long career, I have seen how the country has transitioned from apartheid to democracy, but then a little voice inside my head asks me “has it?”  Looking at the meaning of the word transition, I am of the opinion that this transition is still happening, more so now than ever.

Anyways, back to the point of this piece: during all the reflection I was doing, I found myself thinking of Affirmative Action.

I entered the workplace in 1993, a year or so, before Mr Democracy came riding into town and declared a holiday for all South Africans. I was there, albeit for a short while, back in those days, when one needed two qualifications to advance in workplace; one being the actual qualification, the other being the colour of one’s skin.

Everyone that is my age and older has seen that era, and I am sure everyone younger has read or heard everything about it; therefore I will not spend any more time talking about this phenomenon. This was just before it was agreed that the second qualification was just a BS story (for the lack of a better word).  Did we all agree?.

Probably due to the naivety of youth, I had a lot of expectations when I entered the workplace; as it turned out, some of them were a little unrealistic, some uninformed and the rest were just ambitious. In reflection, I do not regret having had those expectations or the journey of identifying and aligning them; it was an interesting journey and I had some fun taking it.

The one thing that puzzles my mind, to this day, is affirmative action.  What puzzles me is how a good concept turned into such a nightmare, right across the population spectrum. My understanding of the concept is that the intention of the policy was to level the playing fields and allow those that were disenfranchised in the past an opportunity to learn skills and contribute to our economy.

That is my simple understanding of the concept. Looking at then and now, I realise that maybe my expectations around affirmative action were a little unrealistic; my realisation seems to be the reality for a majority of us, black or white.

I remember an incident back in the day, just after the 1994 elections, when I was still relatively new to the workplace. I had just acquired a Bookkeeping Diploma and was looking forward to improving my skills and status in the workplace. There were some vacancies at work, in the Administration department; some black colleagues and I applied, we all had a qualification of some kind (relevant to the vacancy we were applying for) and we were hoping for an opportunity to gather some skills.

A few weeks later, we all saw new appointees arriving at the workplace, some young white folks; we did not even get an opportunity to in and tell our story, needless to say we were not given any feedback as to the status of our job applications.

As one would expect, there was a lot of commotion at work due to this. Eventually we received feedback from the employer, that although we had the qualifications, we did not have the required experiences, which was part of the requirements. The employer did not address our question of how could we get those skills, if the employer was not prepared to give us an opportunity to be developed internally; after all, these were clerical positions, for which as it turned out, the training required was not as intense as the employer made it out to be. 

At that point, affirmative action made so much sense to me, because I hoped that it would address the issue of levelling the playing field.

Fast forward 19 years later, affirmative action is still a policy, the government of the day does not seem prepared to review it or to discuss the its relevance to the here and now. Most black professionals I know do not consider themselves to be affirmative action candidates, funny enough; this has been the case even 10 years ago, when black professionals were job hopping like there is no tomorrow.

I have studied further and acquired a few degrees (including a Masters degree) and I have accumulated a lot of experience in my fields of choice. I do not consider myself an affirmative action candidate anymore, for the simplest reason that my education (never mind the fact that I schooled through Bantu education) and  my work experience speaks for itself throughout my two decade working career; furthermore, it is now almost 20 years since affirmative action policies came into effect.

Being considered an affirmative action candidate comes with quite a stigma; no one in their right mind needs that stigma, especially the black professional. In my experiences, Indian and coloured professionals do not seem to suffer the same stigma as the black professionals. This stigma comes two-fold: from the white, Indian and coloured colleagues, where one gets suspicion and indifference; from the black colleagues, where one gets mistrust, suspicion and simply a bad attitude.  

My experiences in the workplace is that the white, Indian and coloured colleagues will treat one with such suspicion when you are black and you are taking a management position. It is almost like you are expected to fail because you only got the position due to the colour of your skin; as a result, black professionals find that they are expected to prove, not only to seniors and the person that appointed them, but also to colleagues, that they can do the job just as excellently as everybody else.

Should you make one simple mistake, one gets the attitude that says ‘we understand, after all you are way in over your head’. But when they make mistakes, it is like ‘agh it’s ok, it is only human to make mistakes.

To make this worse, black professionals typically do not get the recognition they rightly deserve; the attitude is that since one got the job through affirmative action, why do they need medals on top of that? After all they wouldn’t be here if it was not for the colour of their skin.

With the black folks, they do not trust you because it is common belief among black people that most black people in high positions got there because they “sold their black colleagues out”. This fuels suspicion that since you do not necessarily have the skills, you got where you are because you don’t hesitate to back stab your black colleagues. Therefore, one generally gets an attitude that says “we know, black people when they are in power!”. 

Your black colleagues generally expect one to be understanding and tolerant, even when people take chances and you can see it clear as daylight, otherwise you risk being regarded as living proof that you got into a position of power because you are a sell-out.

Typically the black folks, when managed by one of their own, think it is now Sunday and everyone can do as they please. You should see the stunts they pull and hear the comments they throw around; just so that their black brother or sister cannot enforce any discipline on them. Sometimes this comes in with threats, especially when one stays in the communities where those colleagues stay.

In my most humble opinion, affirmative action, for all its intents and purposes, has proven to be a burden to those it is meant to advance and support. Yes, maybe it has helped increase the numbers of black professionals in senior management positions, but when it comes to someone’s success and well-being in the workplace, why does it have to be a numbers game?

One does not need to be always proving themselves to colleagues that they are worth the appointment, be it in management or junior roles. The stigma of being an affirmative action appointee is visible even when the condition is not stated during the recruitment process; it is almost like as long as you are black, you are an affirmative action appointment, no matter your skills and education.

So, the other day I saw a job advert in the media, which had as a footnote, a clause that stated that ‘this is an Employment Equity’ position. My simple interpretation was that previously disadvantaged people will get preference during the recruitment process. Obviously white people will feel discriminated by such a job ad, while black people will feel that is a great opportunity for them.

I simply did not apply for the job, even though I liked the company that was recruiting and I would have loved to be a part of their management team. Who needs the pressure?  I don’t; that is why I went through the trouble of acquiring all those degrees and skills.

The question I am asking myself now is where I will find a company that will not first look at the colour of my skin and do some number crunching before they appoint me?  A company that will look at my resume and think ‘damn, we need this guy in this place’, without considering affirmative action. I get a feeling that I have a long wait coming……………… Ya neh!!!!! the stigma.

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