A debate: Affirmative Action or Equal Opportunity?

UNISA and TTS – Top Talent Solutions Fairness Conference held on the 19th of March 2012 was a huge success hosting 147 delegates. The etv news team was there and documented and later broadcasted the political debate ‘Affirmative action or equal opportunity?’ which took place between; Mr. Ian M. Ollis MP, Shadow Labour Minister, DA; Mr. Patrick Cravin, National Spokesperson, Cosatu; Dr. Dirk Hermann, Deputy General Secretary, Solidarity and Prof. Dirk Kotze, Head of Department Political Sciences, UNISA and Political Analyst. Each speaker provided unique insight into the topic as they unpacked this highly contentious issue.

Mr. Ollis the Shadow Labour Minister, DA, headed the debate. In his speech ‘Poverty is the new black’ he stated that the previously disadvantaged group members are becoming an ineffective measure as used currently in our polices. He explained that there are a group of previously disadvantaged leaders who now have all the perks of an elite class. He added that a fair system of employment in South Africa needs to measure current levels of disadvantagement and poverty. He further said that “it’s no longer simply a question of race or gender. In South Africa poverty has become the new black!”He added that we should rather be assisting those, for example, who are too poor to afford food before coming to school or those who live too far to travel to school and cannot afford school books, pencils or pens and would never be able to afford university fees or residence costs in metro cities. 

He also mentioned that we are not growing sufficient numbers of successful black entrepreneurs. If we do not turn this around, we will have all groups merely fighting over the current number of jobs that business and government provide.

He ended off by saying that Employment Equity legislation in its current form has become simple “bean counting” and has reached the end of its useful life. It should be replaced by something much more sophisticated to measure how South Africa is educating and uplifting the currently disadvantaged poor. Alternatively it should be repealed as it merely hampers many of the outcomes that it was designed to achieve.

Mr. Patrick Cravin, National Spokesperson, COSATU, spoke next. He asked do we still need these policies 18 years later? Have we achieved our goals? In 1994 something had to be done but do we still need these policies? In theory possibly not but the fact is that very little has changed since 1994 and we have made very little progress. We cannot say that we all have an equal opportunity. So yes, we ought to be moving on, but the reality is that previous inequality has not been resolved. We still have a long way to go to in order to say that we have achieved a fair society. He further explained that in real economic terms inequality has become worse. South Africa is the most unequal country, in terms of distribution of wealth, in the world. Not everyone has an equal opportunity yet. He went on to say that the Employment Equity Act had not been implemented seriously and it should be before it is considered to be disregarded. He argued that we must make use of logical thinking. We cannot discredit the entire system based on a few bad examples. He agreed with Mr. Ollis that we do have a problem with inputs such as education and in sum the rich are becoming richer. He added that it is clear that we need to transform the country and in the meanwhile while we are getting to it we need to implement our existing policies. Mr. Cravin then concluded by saying that we do need legislation to redress the imbalances that are still clearly visible.

The following speaker in the debate was Dr. Dirk Hermann, Deputy General Secretary, Solidarity. Affirmative Action, he said, is failing miserably as its intellectual discourse has fizzled out. He said he didn’t want to argue against Affirmative Action but would critique on the framework. He believes it is not in-line with international best practice and implementation is a problem. He added that he has serious objections as to the way Affirmative Action is currently being implemented.

He then spoke of “the three M’s”. Namely; Manyi, Manual and Mandela. Dr. Hermann argued that Mr. Manyi’s point of view is the same as the mind-set that drove the apartheid system. The second “M” that Dr. Hermann mentioned was Mr. Manual. According to Dr. Hermann Mr. Manual says that Mr. Manyi’s statements are against the spirit of the legislation. Dr. Hermann went on to say that we are using a numerical approach where people are treated as numbers and things. Representivity has become more important than serving the masses. He said we simply look at percentages and focus on an exact replica of demographics which keeps changing. We are therefore constantly endeavouring in a social engineering programme. He claimed that Mr. Manyi’s racist ideas have infused into government and have inevitably become government. The Affirmative action policy has disintegrated into numbers and targets. Affirmative Action, Dr. Hermann said, has lost its moral compass and we need to look again at the origins of Affirmative Action.

The third “M” Dr. Herman mentioned was Mr. Mandela. He added that Mr. Mandela can be found again in the compass where Affirmative Action was birthed. He stated that Mr. Mandela had the aim of redressing imbalances, not providing hand-outs. His aim was not to have race as the basis of privilege.

The last speaker, Prof. Dirk Kotze, Head of Department Political Sciences, UNISA and Political Analyst agreed that there is a need for redress the past wrongs but the question is how andwhat? He stated that no one is against Employment Equity but against the way it is implementedand added that BBBEE is not succeeding.

He said 20 years ago the issues were as follows:

  • Affirmative Action is form of reversed discrimination
  • What about those who were born after 1994 as well as non-South African citizens?
  • One sees large changes in the public sector but what about the private sector?
  • Will there be a cut-off date?

Prof. Kotze then stated that some of the above are still issues now and added that new issues are as follows:

  • Our society is aging and we have a lower life expectancy therefore the population of potential economically active citizens are decreasing
  • BBBEE very focused on winning
  • Policy implementation

Prof. Kotze concluded by saying that despite the problems, government should look at South Africa’s sports development as they are the best example of BBBEE implementation so far. He added that we should look at combining BBBEE and AA with education and training development. He ended off by saying that questions that need answers are the following:

  • How are we balancing the value of BBBEE & AA?
  • How can economic employment contribute to social upliftment?
  • What is the responsibility of the state?

To download a copy of the speaker slides, please click on the relevant topic.

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