Misguided view on affirmative action

DEFENDING affirmative action from attacks by white people, although deplorable, can be explained in terms of them trying to cling to apartheid privileges.

But to have to defend it from attacks by blacks, educated ones at that, is not only bizarre but very tragic as it indicates internalisation of racial prejudice and a severe form of inferiority complex.

The facts are: The socio-economic and political disenfranchisement of black people did not start yesterday but some 350 years ago in 1652 with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch colonialist.

It is a fact that the economy was sustained by slavery and other draconian practices for 250 years and black labour repression for another 100 years, resulting in the unequal distribution of power and wealth between the class of white masters and employers, on the one hand, and that of black servants and employees, on the other.

Black people have suffered multiple successive oppressive periods - of Dutch colonialism (1652-1795), British imperialism (1795-1910) and Afrikaner apartheid (1948-1994) - all aimed at economically, socially and politically impoverishing the indigenous black people. One would have thought that history is public knowledge and should inform all those that seem to have amnesia about our horrid past.

Black people were forcibly asset-stripped at no compensation by being dispossessed of their land, their cattle and maize farms destroyed, forced into the inferior Bantu education system, not allowed into skilled positions by law and endured job reservation so that they could be forced into cheap labour. Affirmative action seeks to address this blatant abuse.

Good examples are the past and arguably the present practices by the mining and steel industries in the 1880s. The endemic mine fatalities are rooted in a neo-liberal system that did not value black life. Indeed, the mining industry, the gold sector in particular, owes its success to lives of many black people who worked under very dangerous conditions in pursuit of profits for the shareholders. It is indeed a shame that even today some of the mining areas are still using the bucket system despite such sacrifices by black people.

Lately, under the guise of the so-called skills shortage, the imperialist mindset continues to seek to dominate black people in all spheres of the economy, sometimes with the help of fellow co-opted black people. This should indeed provide a snippet of the background as to why we need affirmative action.

The new democracy of the past 15 years cannot be expected to have eradicated these deep-seated disparities and thus the calls to remove affirmative action so soon are not only naïve but also insensitive to the pain and agony that many tend to suppress.

Very clearly such a draconian, institutionalised, systematic oppression can never be undone by the superficial rainbow nation nor one human race rhetoric, but by a determined legislative framework backed by a strong political will and an effective bureaucracy that punishes non-compliance.

The latest report (2007/8) by the Commission for Employment Equity shows that 70 percent of the top positions in this country are occupied by whites despite the fact that their economically active population is only about 10 percent. Surely this disproportionate representation must be corrected. With affirmative action, we are not asking for favours or anyone to feel sorry for black people, but opportunities to display our God-given talent. The so-called racially divisive cry in affirmative active discourse is nothing but a self-preservation exercise aimed at maintaining the status quo. It should be dismissed with contempt.

This notion of a white young innocent generation born after 1994 who had nothing to do with apartheid ignores a fact that these kids are born into a structurally engineered society where, by virtue of being white, privilege is bestowed upon them. Young blacks born in the same era bring with them an uninvited baggage of disadvantage.

It should be noted that contrary to popular belief and unlike the Afrikaner Regstellende Aksie, affirmative action is not an ideological intervention against white people but all-inclusive legislation aimed at achieving a representative and diverse society in line with the demographics of this country. Regstellende Aksie preferred white people over blacks purely on the basis of colour. Affirmative action requires more stringent criteria in order to be considered suitable for appointment. It is ill-informed or mischievous to claim that its policy promotes employment ofunsuitably qualified black people.

Black people who don't want to be associated with this programme are misguided and naïve and play in the hands of those that seek to stigmatise this noble corrective programme. Affirmative action is law in this country, nearly 12million people voted for it as recently as April 22 2009. It shall continue to be law for many years to come. The danger of abolishing affirmative action with the current disparities is too ghastly to contemplate.

nManyi is president of the Black Management Forum