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Daily Maverick Morality Politics

Democracy doesn’t magic us into equality

As submitted to Daily Maverick

When you call for a boycott of Woolworth or SAA it’s not in my name, Solidarity. Not in those terms, where you misinterpret legislation, or at the very least stick your fingers in your ears and stamp your feet when you’re offered alternative interpretations. And not in the indignant tones of a group that wants to claim disadvantage in a country where the 10% of us who are white still seem to control just about everything except for the government.

I get that you are frustrated – judging from the comments on some recent Daily Maverick columns, many white folk are at least frustrated, if not angry. It’s even fair to say that you might have a point, because if it’s true that BBBEE is handicapping business and holding back otherwise qualified white employment candidates while only benefiting black tenderpreneurs, then BBEEE is broken. An unemployed black person might even be quick to agree with you, if it was that obviously broken.

Another way in which you certainly have a point is that we shouldn’t be reserving jobs, or positions at universities, according to race. As I argued last year during the crisis-talks around who was allowed to call themselves “African”, Patrice Motsepe and Anton Rupert have far more in common than Steve Hofmeyr and I do. Both black and white refer to something meaningless, or are shorthand for something else that is deeply meaningful.

That meaningful thing is privilege and power, and whether one has it or not. It is whose numbers you have on your cellphone, and whose you do not. It is how many books you read as a child, and therefore how ready you were for school and maybe university, and it is about whether your parents had time to spend weekends with you instead of go to work – or even sometimes about whether you knew your parents at all. It is about all these things, and many more that I can’t imagine.

That meaningful thing tends to correlate with race. We can perhaps summarise it by using the descriptor of “class”, even though that would need further definition. And no, melanin levels play no direct causal role in assigning you to a class. But they have played an indirect one for centuries, thanks to those of us with a lighter skin using race as a proxy for identifying those who stand ready to be exploited.

Not willing, of course, but ready. Sometimes ready thanks to not knowing any better, or through trusting the wrong people. Eventually, as you all know, the exploitation was codified in law, and it was ensured that the vast majority of our population would have less access to the privileges of good educations, safe neighbourhoods, running water and the like.

Those laws changed one generation ago. So it is true that many entering the job market today grew up in a racially neutral democracy. But very few of those job-seekers have parents who can advise on appropriate water-cooler conversation, or on which tie goes best with that suit, or on what to do when you’re the subject of sexist jokes in the workplace.

1994 – or whatever date you choose to identify the start of freedom – did not constitute an act of magic, despite the exuberant rhetoric we so long to believe in. Disadvantage can at some point in history be considered self-inflicted, or an instance of bad luck that has no systemic cause such as racial prejudice. But we’re not there yet, because it remains unreasonable to question the fact that a white kid – in general – enjoys advantages that a black kid does not.

Ideally, this conversation shouldn’t be about race. It should be about identifying which South Africans are underprivileged due to some or other injustice, and then providing redress where possible. If we could find a better way of detecting this lack of privilege than race we should use it, or at least open the discussion about using it – affirmative action based on something as meaningless as skin colour does need a sunset clause, or some sort of trigger condition for its demise.

And yes, it is also true that there are poor white folk, some very rich black folk, and therefore easy examples of inefficiencies and injustice you could point to as being caused by affirmative action. But when you do so, you sound like a racist. Because those exceptional cases don’t alter the fact that cultural capital – Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the knowledge, access and other advantages that allow white people, in general, to still enjoy a higher status in society – is not built over a single generation.

So by all means, Solidarity, question whether we should substitute class for race and explain to us how we should do so. Introduce the idea of a sunset clause – it would be improper for you to be accused of racism simply for doing that. As far as I’m concerned, you could even ask whether it’s appropriate for a job to be targeted at a certain race group, if it’s true that doing so would constitute unfair discrimination.

But as I tried to point out in my column on SAA’s cadet scheme, when one race – or one class – is under-represented in certain job categories, it’s pretty easy to guess what race and class they are, and why they are under-represented. And it’s perfectly justifiable to try to find qualified candidates from that group, before expanding your search to include looking for more people of the sort you already have.

We should all hope to one day not need affirmative action of any sort. But if you claim we don’t need it now, simply because no child was born into a South Africa where they were deprived of a vote thanks to their skin colour, you’re really missing the point that you can’t simply vote your way into a better life for all. Securing a better life involves education, employment and a host of other goods – all of which remain easier to access if your skin happens to be pale.

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Morality Politics

Attention, white people in South Africa!

The dulcet tones of Steve Hofmeyr seem to have convinced some of you that there is some sort of impending genocide, and that it’s going to be played out using airline pilots and “cashiers of colour” at Woolworths (that’s your preferred polite phrasing, isn’t it?). And in the pressure-chamber of the shouting we love to do in each others’ general direction, especially on the Internet, Woolworths and SAA are now “racist” for trying to give previously disadvantaged folk a head start in the employment queue.

But my previous sentence contained a falsity, in that we’re not talking about “previously disadvantaged” people at all. We’re talking about currently disadvantaged people, in that it will take more than just a generation of people being able to vote to result in equality of a substantive sort – the sort that gives you the same sort of choices as someone who grew up, and whose grandparents grew up, on top of the social heap. I’ll say more about this in next week’s Daily Maverick column.

Here, just a short note to say that much of the opposition to affirmative action rests on a false dichotomy. It is of course wrong to ‘blame’ white people (except for some, of course – I’m happy to blame PW Botha, FW de Klerk, etc.) for continuing inequality premised on race. It’s wrong to set out to make white folk, in general, ashamed of being white. But those are very different to recognising that there are still significant inherent privileges to being white, and (as a white person) not getting defensive when those are pointed out. In other words, it’s not as simple as option A) everything is equal and hunky-dory or B) we have reverse-racism. We do have racial discrimination, yes, any many people (including many whites, like me) think it entirely justified.

At some point it will (hopefully) no longer be justified, and it’s certainly a worry that politicians won’t have the courage to recognise when that point arrives. But we’re not there yet. And yes, it should be legitimate to ask questions about how we are going about the process of trying to get to socio-economic equality. We can debate the manner in which affirmative action is implemented (class versus race, for example), and we can debate sunset clauses. But when we do so, it can’t be in the self-righteous and indignant tones of someone who denies that your position on the social and economic heap is still strongly correlated with the arbitrary characteristic of your skin colour. When you speak like that, denying this reality, you sound like a racist – and you probably are one, whether or not you know it.

(And by the way, that’s not clever.)

Categories
Daily Maverick Politics

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.