Quotas do not equality make

Posted on August 7, 2016


Despite a clear South African Constitutional Court decision last month on quotas and equal rights, much election propaganda on the topic, leading up to the August 3 poll, was characterised by misinformation, distortions and downright lies. For the most part, this amounted to a perhaps deliberate misreading of the Equality provisions in the Bill of Rights, let alone the relevant sections of the Employment Equity Act.

What it illustrated was that there still exists much confusion about the concepts of equity and affirmative action. Politicians might be expected to know better, but they probably thought it advisable to play the race and quota cards.

This boiled down to arguing about quotas based on demographics and definitions of “race”. In the process, and with considerable irony, this allowed groups usually categorised by the labour movement as “forces of the Right” to appropriate to themselves an egalitarian image; the image once largely the preserve of the ANC and the anti-apartheid labour movement.

The Freedom Front Plus (FF+), for example, is a party with its roots firmly in the “white Right” of Afrikaner nationalism. And, on its election posters featuring leader Pieter Mulder, it demanded: “Say No to Quotas.”

This slogan was a clear reference to statements such as one by the ANC economic transformation chief, Enoch Godongwana, that racial quotas should be employed. Last year he noted: “Verwoerd [Henrik, the “architect of apartheid”] used the quota system, therefore we should too. We unashamedly say we will use quotas.”

Yet, as both politicians should be aware, ethnic, racial or any other discriminatory measures are illegal in South Africa’s constitutional democracy. But by supporting quotas based on definitions of “race” the ANC and many of its supporters opened the way for former champions of racial quotas and preferences to appear as champions of non-racialism.

So it was that the Solidarity union, lineal descendant of the Afrikaner nationalist and ultra segregationist Mynwerkersunie, won an employment equity case in the Concourt last month on behalf of “coloured” correctional services staff. The workers had been denied promotion because of a racial quota based on the national demographic.

In 2010, the prisons department set an employment equity target based on the fact that 80% of the population in the country is “black”, ignoring the fact that in the Western Cape, for example, about 50% of the population is still regarded as “coloured” [of mixed ancestry]. Equity targets are legal and perhaps desirable in order to try to remedy the gross injustices of the apartheid past, but they remain just that: targets.

In this regard, it is significant that neither the FF+ nor Solidarity have ever emerged to champion affirmative action. Yet that is where the argument really lies.

Nowhere in our Bill of Rights or labour legislation is there any provision for quotas based on race, religion, background or anything else. What does exist — and which this column has consistently supported — is the need for affirmative action to redress the racially motivated disadvantages of the past.

Clause nine of the Bill of Rights, reflected in Chapter II of the Employment Equity Act, states that all are equal before the law. But it adds that “legislative and other measures may be taken” to “protect or advance” those people “disadvantaged by unfair discrimination”.

This means taking cognisance of the previous hierarchy of apartheid privilege and giving preference to equally qualified individuals from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. Excellence and professionalism should not be sacrificed on the alter of racial or political expediency. However, this also implies providing preferential — affirmative — support to historically disadvantaged individuals and communities to start to “level the playing field”.

This requires not only commitment, but time and money. Government and the private sector should, therefore, devote disproportionate resources to areas and communities disadvantaged by the former dispensation.

That never happened in any serious way. Just as the spatial element — the geography — of apartheid has persisted, so too has access to decent schooling and skills training. To disguise their inability or unwillingness to deal adequately with this, members of the governing party play the race and quota card. So too do the beneficiaries of the old regime who wish to retain the privileged positions of themselves and their communities..

And the unions seem also to have fallen into the quota trap when they should have been devoting their energies to combatting the legacy of apartheid by demanding stress on equality of social, economic and educational opportunity, coupled with principled affirmative action.

Last month’s Concourt decision will hopefully provide the anti-apartheid unions with the incentive to start to reclaim their principled positions in the fight for genuine equity.