• David Sharp
  • 23 April 2012

Positively unfair: workplace discrimination in South Africa

Following the end of the Apartheid Government in 1994, amid all the celebration, South Africa was faced with some tough choices. One of the biggest challenges was how to achieve a more representative workforce, when up until that point virtually all the well-paid jobs were held by white people, who make up approximately only 10% of the overall population.
Racial segregation under the previous regime had denied non-whites the right to a proper education or career, excluding them from making a meaningful contribution to the country’s economy. Women were also under-represented: in Apartheid South Africa, work was the preserve of the white male.
Nearly 20 years after the arrival of a democratically elected government, it’s fascinating to see what efforts have been made here to build a diverse workforce, representative of the population, and which promises opportunity for all. I’ve been living here for nearly five months now, and I find myself constantly surprised, delighted and confused by people’s attitudes to employment and education.
One of the employment policies introduced by the Government nearly ten years ago brought in positive discrimination, something I’ve always found it difficult to make my mind up about. What that means here is that through legislation known as B-BBEE (Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, or ‘BEE’ as it’s often known) employers are required to give preference to candidates from ‘previously disadvantaged groups’ when recruiting and promoting staff, where all other factors are equal. It’s known slightly more euphemistically as ‘affirmative action’, or ‘AA’.
As explained by the South African Department of Labour, ‘Affirmative action ensures that qualified people from designated groups have equal opportunities in the workplace’.
I can see that this makes sense. Previously disadvantaged groups (who, incidentally, include women) had been denied the right to education and careers for years, so it’s only right that they should be given a fair crack at the whip. Not only were they under-represented, but they were also the least well-equipped group to stand up for their rights, so they need all the help they can get.
There are two downsides to this approach, however. The biggest bugbear for me is that, as with all forms of discrimination, affirmative action is based on discriminatory principles: in this case, ones that are by and large deeply racist. The former Apartheid Government divided people into racial groups that included whites, blacks, coloureds and Indians. When Apartheid was defeated, in order to build a diverse, representative workforce, those same racist categories have become re-utilised as the very basis for racial equality in the workplace.
Indeed, the term ‘coloured’ is widely used by everyone here in South African without any hint of prejudice, by all members of the population. I can see how it might catch out white South Africans visiting Britain: my own use of the term upset our Marketing Director, Ben Daft, who would much rather I’d have used the label ‘mixed race’. (As an aside, God only knows what Ben would have made of the Coon Carnival, one of the most popular in Cape Town, whose name has been changed by the tourist authority not to appease the local population – who don’t seem to care – but for fear of upsetting the outside world.)
While BEE is intended as a positive step towards racial equality, it brings with it huge practical problems, not least the very shortage of skilled, qualified and experienced candidates available. After 18 years of democracy, I’ve been genuinely surprised that progress towards racial equality in the workplace has been so slow (in practical, as opposed to policy, terms).  
Education seems to be the biggest barrier to the success of BEE. Despite having one of the largest per capita education budgets in the world, South Africa is still not producing enough black talent from its schools and universities. If you believe the critics, the result damages the country’s commercial productivity, with weak candidates promoted above their ability level to meet racial quotas. Apartheid in reverse, if you will.
As with much law under the Apartheid Government, BEE is a piece of legislation that has the effect of disadvantaging a certain racial group: in this case, white people. It’s not an exaggeration to say that being a white, middle-aged man can be a huge barrier to employment.
Of course, you could argue that the fate of the middle aged white male is still better than that of the black child born in a rural area where there is still no electricity and standards of hygiene, sanitation and what passes for teaching are still low. It’s a shocking statistic to discover that South Africa has the highest number of people affected with HIV in the world. Education has such a large part to play in overcoming this.
Mulling over the situation here, there are obvious comparisons with the equality debate in the UK. Workplace Law’s Alex Davies blogged eloquently about the Lord Davies report Women on boards, which encourages employers to push more women to the top. Alex came out against positive discrimination, stating that quotas are not the answer.
That said, despite the doom-mongers, no long-term ill appears to have come from the Labour Party’s approach to affirmative action in the 1990s, which saw the introduction of a larger than average number of women MPs into parliament – who subsequently became known as ‘Blair’s Babes’ (a nice sexist term there). Clearly quotas can work.
I can’t make my mind up about positive discrimination in the South African workplace.
BEE makes employers cynical, discriminates on racial grounds, and by promoting people above their competence (which I’ve heard enough evidence to believe to be true) it affects commercial performance. But perhaps the comparison between the racial divide here and the gender divide in the UK ends there. Perhaps the non-white population here has been so weak for so long, it needs the protection of affirmative action to get a firm foothold in the workplace?
What I do think is that any period of affirmative action should operate as a ‘special measure’: it should be for the shortest time possible in order to achieve a targeted aim. And what I know for sure is that the long-term solution to the problem in South Africa lies with education. In my remaining time here, that’s what I’d like to look into a lot more.