Employment Equity? It’s like Fawlty Towers - only funnier

2013-07-21 16:24

Ours is a country that sets “Employment Equity” objectives for businesses, government departments, parastatals, regional and municipal government, corporations, plus all manner of other employers. We even have a Minister of Labour who commends or berates businesses and regional governments for their performance in the attainment of such objectives. The closer the employer matches a predetermined demographic objective the government has handed down with respect to the hiring of staff, the more praiseworthy it is deemed to be.

Now look, we all understand how the “Employment Equity” imperative got there in the first place. It was payback time.

Up to 1994 discriminatory laws favoured whites at the expense of black people, which was clearly unfair. The original intention of such laws had been to protect “poor whites” suffering the effects of rapid urbanization in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War and two World Wars, when black workers represented cheap competition for their labour. With competing racial groups lacking the modern life skills of the time and black employees less expensive to hire, the government of the day came to the rescue of the white electorate. Social equality and equal playing fields were not political issues in those days.

Thus, modern day “Employment Equity” has been put in place to fix that sin.

Yet it cannot work for two reasons.

• Ours purports to be a democracy serving all its people equally, having at one stage even been dubbed the “Rainbow Nation”.

By contrast, the National Party government (1948 to 1994) was unambiguously in the business of serving the white minority – with particular emphasis on the Afrikaner community.

So the stated objectives of the two governments differ and have never been comparable.

• The thinking of the time (in the fifties and sixties) was that resources and jobs were finite and limited - which, in the National Party’s view, justified policies that preferred whites. Contemporary economic thinking is very different.

Economists today recognize that economic prosperity is not a zero sum game and that in a successful and growing economy, everybody - or certainly most – benefit, albeit unequally and according to ability.

This renders “equity goals” and similar forms of employment coercion obsolete and worse still, harmful - since service delivery and value creation are compromised, inefficiency institutionalized and racism and corruption promoted.

Thus today we experience the net outcomes of these contradictory dynamics. On the one hand we have a racist, kleptocracy similar to the one it displaced, but claiming to be a democracy. On the other we have a largely socialist economy run along zero-sum lines, which results in economic growth below even the level of net population growth and promotes unemployment and corruption.

As a business school undergraduate I studied HR – an abbreviation for the subject “Human Relations” – as part of the required curriculum. One aspect of the course examined how various nationalities, cultural groups, and even religions and races were characterized by unique competences and predispositions that set them apart. Knowing that someone was of a given nationality, race or persuasion often went some way to defining their probable levels of initiative, economic acumen or propensity for given professions. For example, Germans played a key role in developing agriculture in Russia; the Chinese a major role in the economic advancement of the Philippines and Malaysian economies; the Lebanese dominated trade in West Africa for many years; Jews were associated with the textile industry; the English with banking - and so on.

Although not hard and fast, these pointers aid in the assessment of potential employees, business partners or customers, and enhance efficiency. It is basic common sense to recognize cultural and cognitive aptitudes and note the sort of people who are considered good (or bad) at something before making selection decisions from the talent available.

But in South Africa we play a different tune. Merit and aptitude are so not cool.

Some weeks back, the Minister of Labour berated the Western Cape government for comparing unfavourably with other provinces in terms of “equity” goals – or not loading its administration with enough black people. She also commended the province of Limpopo for coming top of the class.

The reasons – as many will know - are twofold. The Western Cape hires service providers and contractors for the most part according to track record, past performance and qualifications in order to get the job done, and discounts colour or race as employment criteria in favour of competence. Limpopo, on the other hand is driven by racial profiling and, perhaps only coincidentally, abundant corruption.

Given that by any measure the Western Cape is considered the best run province and Limpopo the worst, it is probably safe to imagine that government is trying to produce a new age Fawlty Towers Extravaganza. Our ministers may not be as articulate as Basil Fawlty and his wife Sybil, nor as slapstick as Manuel the chef - but to a remotely intelligent audience, their actions and logic make them immeasurably funnier.

Sadly for South Africans though, there isn’t an option to switch channels to something more cerebral.

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