Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment: The Moral Imperatives of Justice

2013-08-30 17:45

Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment: The Moral Imperatives of Justice

Both Affirmative Action (AA) and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) debates have dominated the better half of post-apartheid South Africa, particularly when it comes to the redistribution of wealth discourse. Though it seems logical to employ such policies in the context where some groups have been marginalised at many different levels, the logic and justification of these reparatory policies seems to escape the minds of many. Therefore, it is imperative to offer the most needed moral justification of South Africa’s forms of redistributive policies, so that commentators can offer informed commentaries.

My argument borrows insight from the well-known political theorists who have entertained theories of justice over time: Michael Sandel and his common good (communitarian) theory of justice, John Rawls’ and his “veil of ignorance” theory.

Arguably, AA and BEE fits into both of these theories of justice as they attempt to facilitate social justice, which is defined by Andrieu Kora as the basis upon which just and stable societies find their establishment to settle economic, political and social injustices that may have been created by conflict.

To this end, it is note worthy to point out that the concept of justice can be used to evaluate many different things, from criminal law to a market economy. At the global level, justice functions to establish governance standards, inform just war imperatives and fundamentals of human rights. The thrust of justice is to settle disagreements among people that arise in the context of social interactions, and as in other scientific discourses, theories of justice vary greatly.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action is a term that originated in the United States of America, and it refers to a range of programmes directed towards certain groups in order to redress inequalities due to discriminatory practices of the past. Broadly speaking, it takes two forms. The first form involves policies that alter the composition of the labour force. The second set of policies is designed to increase the representativeness of government and to establish public committees and education institutions.

People’s views about affirmative action are largely calibrated by whether the individuals commenting on the policies benefit from affirmative action programmes or not. Obviously every view is subjective, but affirmative action proponents generally argue that it serves to uplift the traditionally marginalised groups in a given country. They also argue that it helps these traditionally marginalised groups not only to improve their fate, but also to become productive members of society.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that such policies serve to facilitate “reverse discrimination” because selection criteria sideline the most qualified individuals. Alternatively, others argue that the impact of giving a chance to the previously disadvantage is far reaching in a sense that it alters people’s perception of gender roles and societal groups that are viewed negatively. For example, policing roles were traditionally viewed as manly jobs, but as women are given a chance in this area people begin to see women differently and as capable of doing any thing.

The moral justification of AA is its compensatory stance as it functions to remedy of the past wrongs. To bolster this stance, in his ‘veil of ignorance theory of justice Rawls argues that in a situation where people have no knowledge of who is going to benefit from the decisions they make, they tend to make decisions that are more just. The point he drives home is that people’s decision-making processes are very much influenced by not only what is just, but also by what they think is in their personal interest.

He does not necessarily advocate for an exact distribution of resources and riches, but welcomes social and economic disparities that function in the interest of the least privileged. Essentially, what Rawls’ implicitly says is that deliberate choices made to sideline one group in favor of the other are not just and require reparation of some kind. Therefore, affirmative action as a form of making up for the unjust distribution of privileges that did not stem from Rawls’ idea of “veil of ignorance”, begs the certain degree of fairness. However, room exists for other conceptions of justice to fill the gaps in his theory of justice.

Black Economic Empowerment

Michael Sandel’s common good theory of justice finds resonance with BEE. Though he appreciates libertarian stance or individual choice and freedom he argues that it fails to appreciate the need for policies that function for the greater good. These notions in his view fail to appreciate common good, which include the cultivation of civic virtues that are instrumental for democracy and the greatest good for everyone as opposed to individuals.

He argues that the journey towards a just-society requires a citizenry that appreciates the importance of caring for all members of the society and has an unswerving commitment to what is good for the general community. This kind of society cannot afford to ignore the value added by the uniqueness of individuals to the public spaces,and it is at the place where civic virtues are cultivated. This in my view is very important in our situation in the light of our racially divided society.

In essence, Sandel’s communitarian proposal is an appreciation of the fact that nation building of any kind is a collective project that functions for the benefit of the whole nation and not just individuals. In other words, any redistribution of wealth or skills project that does not appreciate the importance of common good exacerbates social inequality and further enhances lack of social solidarity that is fundamental in democratic citizenry.

To bolster this argument, South African government argues that Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies are not necessarily about affirmative action in a sense of promoting positive discrimination. Rather, they argue that the attempt is to bring the whole nation into a place of participating in economic activities. This line of thinking about just distribution suggests that broader economic participation would lead to the benefit of the whole nation and create more taxpayers.

This approach broadens the taxpayers’ community that could help to shoulder the social economic burdens currently shouldered by few citizens, and could also help to facilitate the most needed social cohesion. To this end, Sandel’s view suggests that taxation for the purpose of strengthening social institutions is a buffer for national solidarity. A massive gap between the haves and have-nots is not only morally unacceptable, but also causes the increasing separation of social spaces and differences in life styles, and militate against the most needed social encounters for national solidarity purposes.

Obviously, sometimes policy frameworks objectives such as BEE are great on paper, but the major challenge in the process thereof is implementation.  This has been one of the major concerns in South Africa, especially among Blacks who are supposed to be beneficiaries of this policy. They argue that these policies benefit the politically connected and neglect the poor majority.

However, the rationale behind these policy frameworks is morally plausible in my view as such policies seek to bring the target groups to a somewhat similar starting position. Basically, the moral imperative question is addressed clearly by this policy; however, it leaves a gap for better implementation to be desired. So instead of dismissing these policies completely we should contribute towards making them better in the interest of common good.


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