I recently read a post from the blog “Constitutionally Speaking” on affirmative action in the workplace. Apologies. I should say “constitutionally required redress measures” – it’s apparently wrong to refer to them as affirmative action.

The post dealt with some of the judgements arising from a recent legal case between Solidarity/Solidariteit (a “Christian” Trade Union) and the Department of Correctional Services, where Solidarity was challenging some of the provisions of South Africa’s Employment Equity Act.

From what I understand, Solidarity argued that the discrimination against certain racial groups* runs contrary to the equality principle in the Employment Equity Act itself – the so-called “reverse racism” argument.
*so much delicacy of terminology

An argument which the Labour Court rejected, reaffirming the Constitutional Court’s position that “redress measures are a prerequisite for the achievement of substantive equality”. That said, the Labour Court did agree that some of the implementation of the Act was inappropriate – and the Department of Correctional Services will be doing things a bit differently.

To Be Clear

Some facts:

  • The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) had an affirmative action redress measures plan that required the national demography be reflected in every workplace, even at a regional and provincial level.
  • Coloured South Africans represent 8.8% of South Africa’s population.
  • But in the Western Cape, they represent 51% of the economically active population.
  • Unfortunately for them, that’s just too many.
  • Because the DCS would only allow coloured people to fill 8.8% of the positions available in the Western Cape.
  • So Solidarity took the DCS to court on behalf of 10 of its members (9 coloured and 1 white) who kept getting passed over for promotion based on the colour of their skin.
  • The Labour Court ruled that using national racial demographics as the only measure for implementing affirmative action was an unfair practice.
  • The judge also ruled that the white man was not included in the judgement.
  • Which, to be honest, was probably fair – throwing in a white guy certainly looks like the kind of sneaky move to get a ruling with “Oh, hey! White folks too…”

Cue: The Crucifixion Countdown

So obviously, I have an opinion on this. Which will probably be universally offensive. But clearly, there’s a problem. I mean, do I have to mention Red October?

On the other hand…

Like most things, I think that there are arguments both ways.

But regardless of your position, there is a clear racial bias impact from the years of Apartheid. And that’s not going to disappear quickly. The white community is better educated, better connected, and more established. If that was left to naturally integrate (disintegrate?) on its own, it would take a really long time (if it happened at all).


An analogy: there’s an unpopular child in the playground, so the school-teacher instructs the rest of the children to play with him/her. Can you force play? Or does that make the unpopular child more of an outcast?

The problem, I think, is that racial prejudice is fundamentally a social construct. Redress measures attempt to correct the economic consequences of that social construct. But I don’t think that you can correct it backwards.

Good Businesses Are Not Economical

Here’s another analogy: your mother-in-law cooks a magnificent Christmas dinner. The cranberry sauce bursts with notes of citrus and the turkey seems to melt into the gravy. At the end, you pull out a $100 note, and demand the bill. What happens?

Your mother-in-law is wildly offended. As is your wife.

But why though? What is so wrong with offering to pay your mother-in-law for her time?

The problem is that we’re complex creatures – and we distinguish between economic and social relationships. The first are based on a clear exchange of goods and services, whereas social relationships are a complication of favours and emotions and status.

Good businesses, the kind that are successful, are not built on economic relationships. In fact, I would say that the businesses that are purely economic do not last very long: they make for unhappy clients (because they are treated as a source of revenue), unhappy suppliers (because they are treated as cost centres to be squeezed), and very unhappy staff (nothing like being called a “resource”).

No. Good businesses are built on social relationships. People understand that there are economic goals – but the networks and the working environments are built on favours and emotions and status. Almost as though your work is freely given, and your salary is simply a living allowance. You care about your clients; and you “work on” your supplier relationships.

It is delicate though – because it’s hard to maintain. And when it collapses, just like the mother-in-law story, people get angry. And often, for a long time. For example: during World War II, the Red Cross used to offer American troops free doughnuts and coffee. Then, in 1942, and at the request of the US State Department, it started charging a nominal fee for the doughnuts. The Red Cross turned from being a place of comfort to a corner store: and the Red Cross has never since lost the stigma that arose from that decision (here’s the article and podcast).

It’s why you can’t force play.

How That Relates To Affirmative Action

The State is turning social relationships into economic ones. Black empowerment is an “obstacle” to be overcome. Almost as though black employees are a necessary evil; and in the private sector, just part of the cost of acquiring government contracts, etc.

Does that sound like a result of less prejudice?

An Alternative. Or, rather, a Complement.

It’s not about creating economic obligations – it should be about providing the right environment for the appropriate social relationships to develop.

You have to start at the bottom. When children are young. With the education system. And let the rising tide of skilled black workers lift the majority’s boat.

A Final Word

Keeping the Employment Equity Act seems politically expedient. And because human nature is adaptable, it will likely accept and move on. Hopefully, without too much further damage.

But the racial prejudice won’t be corrected by it.

So we’re just going to have to exercise some patience on that one. Because the racial bias will have to correct itself on its own: with successive generations of children growing up in integrated schools.

And eventually, we’ll all be able to go back to being just plain classist.