SAA and justified racial discrimination

As submitted to Daily Maverick

As much as I’d eventually like to live in a world where the most meritorious person is employed or admitted to university, it’s perhaps impossible to ever get there. Factors other than merit will always influence selection, some of which are within our control and some of which are not. Because of the ones that are not, a fundamentalist rather than pragmatic insistence on merit cannot help but reinforce existing advantages – and disadvantages – resulting from various historical prejudices.

Why it’s impossible and not simply difficult is because a selection is always being made from the candidates who make themselves available. And that pool is determined by who has knowledge of the opportunity in question, the means to respond to the job advertisement or placement opportunity, and of course sufficient competency to be considered. You’re choosing from that pool, and the best person for the job might never know the job exists, never mind be in a position to apply for it.

However, some of the factors influencing the composition of that pool are morally less significant than others. It’s not your job (as a potential employer) to address a cultural stereotype dictating that nurses should be female, because that stereotype isn’t premised on generations of prejudice against male nurses. Instead, it’s likely to be premised on prejudice in favour of male doctors, whereby one leaves the (lesser) job to the (less capable) sex, and also on gender stereotypes around women being more caring than men, and thus, better nurses.

Those prejudices and stereotypes will continue to diminish over time, though it might always be the case that certain groups of people, however defined, will prefer one sort of activity or employment over another. But if you care about getting the best people to work for you or fill your classrooms, you have to be concerned about obvious, and substantial, skews in the applicant pool.

This is precisely why affirmative action is sometimes merited. Where generations of prejudice have made it the case that certain sectors of the population don’t consider certain options viable – or worse, have been systematically deprived of opportunities to exploit those options – we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we’re hiring on merit. At best, we’re hiring the most meritorious amongst the pool of the most privileged. Those actually most meritorious, given sufficient opportunity, might not be part of your selection pool at all.

Some of the reaction to South African Airways’ (SAA) decision to restrict its cadet programme to black and/or female South Africans seemed to come from the fundamentalist school of meritocracy. The trade union Solidarity have always struck me as race-baiting ambulance-chasers, always first on the scene to complain about some perceived slight to a usually white victim. So it was little surprise to see them launching a public campaign against SAA.

But then we also had the Democratic Alliance (DA), whose spokeswoman on public enterprises, Natasha Michael, remarked that selecting on grounds of gender and race “is to take our reconciliation project backwards”. The Freedom Front Plus were also upset, saying that “this action [is] one of the most glaring examples of blatant racial discrimination by any government institution to date”.

SAA have subsequently changed their minds, and now permit anyone to apply for the cadet programme. It’s important to note that SAA never intended to only hire black or female pilots – their existing recruitment and hiring strategies were not being altered in any way. The cadet programme, closed since 2006, was being re-launched in a context where 85% of SAA’s pilots are white men – in a country where white men amount to less than 5% of the population. If you’re looking for the best pilots, it makes little sense to only look in a pool that small – and if you’ve got reason to think that the other 95% need an incentive to consider becoming a pilot, a subsidised cadet scheme seems a good start.

Sure, SAA could have handled it better, by indicating that they would give preference to black and female applications (rather than simply reject white male applications immediately on submission, as was the case on the scheme’s launch). Now, they claim to have done away with any form of quota, although it’s more likely to be the case that they will continue to prioritise certain applications, only out of sight.

If one pays a little attention to the reaction of the (almost exclusively white) commentators on the initial reports regarding the cadet programme, it’s clear that merit was the last thing on most of the complainant’s minds. Unbridled racism is the order of the day, where it is assumed that white pilots are certain to be more competent, and that Solidarity (and the DA, of course) has saved us all from falling out of the sky.

Some are still calling for boycotts of SAA. The Dutch non-attached member of the European Parliament, Lucas Hartong, wants SAA’s landing rights revoked in Europe as punishment for even considering quotas in their cadet programme. For those who don’t know who Hartong is, he’s the man who says things like: “the ANC should rather concentrate on hunting down and prosecuting the black-racist radicals who are murdering the Boer farmers on their own land in the so-called ‘farm-murders’”.

Just the sort of man you can trust to offer informed comment on matters of social justice and racial equality, then. The problem is that this is what opposition to redress – even of this quite innocuous sort – looks like to many South Africans, and this is the sort of reaction it inspires. And sorry, friends in certain sectors of politics, but it’s also what the DA can sometimes look like, when it forgets that even if merit is the most important thing, finding it might mean looking in places you hadn’t looked in before – like the other 95% of the population.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.