South Africa is approaching its 17th National Day of Reconciliation, and while some clear progress has been made towards a more cohesive society, strategies for greater economic participation and ownership, workforce transformation and employment equity continue to be controversial and contested. Black economic empowerment (BEE) and its subsequent broad-based (BBBEE) iteration have produced kingmakers of a select few, while becoming something akin to swear words in other circles. Criticism of employment equity (EE), whether of its underlying principles or problematic implementation, are pervasive in the media, political talk and among ordinary workers and job-seekers, who face growing insecurity as South Africa’s recovery from the 2009 recession has slowed and European countries face a looming economic contraction.
Public outcry over the proposed changes contained within the 2010 Employment Equity Amendment Bill – tabled together with the Basic Conditions of Employment, Labour Relations amendment bills and the Employment Services bill, and still under deliberation with the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) and labour department – provided ample evidence of just how thorny issues of economic transformation remain in South Africa today. The proposal to remove ‘provincial’ as a qualifying term to the demographics used in EE application quickly became a political warm patat, due in part to warnings by the Solidarity trade union that the amendment posed a threat to jobs in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in particular. The contentious tone of the public debate that ensued was exacerbated by Solidarity’s release of YouTube footage of a 2010 interview with government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi, which included comments that coloured people were in ‘over-supply’ in the Western Cape and the intimation that they should disperse to other parts of the country to access EE jobs. In an open letter published widely in newspapers around the country, planning minister Trevor Manuel accused Manyi of bringing racism into the ‘highest echelons of government’.
Much of the debate around EE and other transformative economic strategies in South Africa focuses around what many view as a fundamental legal conundrum, and even a contradiction: the pursuit of a non-racial society is one of the founding values of the democratic Constitution, yet it coexists uncomfortably with the prerogative of using apartheid racial categories for purposes of redress. The Employment Equity Commission (EEC), located within the labour department, has the messy mandate of simultaneously preventing unfair discrimination in the workplace and promoting ‘fair discrimination to ensure that Africans, Coloureds, Indians, women and people with disabilities are equitably represented at all occupational levels’.
For this reason, many South Africans continue to question whether EE is the right policy approach for a country actively working to deconstruct a legacy of apartheid racial classification, and more broadly, whether these categories should still have a place in equity decision-making at all. These questions have featured in an ongoing debate over differential race-based admissions criteria at the University of Cape Town (UCT), which has become so extensive that a link has been added to the university homepage to provide access to collated letters, statements and articles on the issue – often having already appeared in newspapers and the popular press. In an article that appeared on Politicsweb in May, James Myburgh described UCT’s use of ‘racial quotas’ in admissions decisions as a ‘complete betrayal of the principles [the university] once invoked in the struggle against apartheid-era discrimination’. Gerda Kruger, executive director of marketing and communications for the university, responded that the use of racial categories – albeit with some reluctance – was motivated by a commitment to pursuing greater equality and diversity on campus, and undoing the lasting effects of the ‘bantu education’ system.
Professor Neville Alexander has often contributed to this debate, and argues that the intent behind EE policy is not as problematic as the ways in which it is discussed and applied in the public and political spheres. In effect, Alexander has suggested, EE has mainly benefitted a narrow black middle class, while increasing economic inequality and perpetuating prejudice and racialised identities through what he has described as the ‘irresponsible practice on the part of political, cultural and other role models of referring unproblematically to “blacks”, “coloureds”, “Indians” and “whites” in their normal public discourse’. Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley have also suggested that EE has opened up the ANC to critiques that it has ‘re-racialised’ democratic South Africa, and observe with some irony that the call for non-racialism has been appropriated by opposition parties calling for a ‘sunset clause’ to preferential employment.
On a more pragmatic level, EE has also been criticised for shortcomings in implementation – even from within the EEC itself. In 2010, acting chairperson Mpho Nkeli soberly introduced the 2009/2010 annual report with the concession that ‘white males still dominate the top echelons of our workplace, yet they are in the minority’. South Africans within this particular demographic, the Commission also found, continue to benefit most from training and skills development initiatives. Nkeli described this conclusion as ‘discouraging because it indicates very slow progress on transformation and potential to erode the insignificant achievements made to date’. This lack of progress is also apparent to citizens: in 2011, a national survey conducted by Ipsos-Markinor found that 46% of South Africans believe EE is not being implemented effectively.
However, there are also unexplored questions within this debate. First, notwithstanding vehement protests from some quarters, effective alternative practices or solutions for directing redress without using apartheid race categories remain few and far between.
Further, amidst vociferous argumentation, the reality remains that widespread support for interventions such as EE is still intact. The results of the 2011 round of the IJR’s SA Reconciliation Barometer survey found that about 70% of South Africans approve of interventions to ensure that the workforce is representative of gender, race and physical ability in the country. Forty-five percent (45%) agree that government should continue to use race categories to measure the impact of programme and only 16% disagree – many more are uncertain (39%). The extent of this support is often overlooked in high-level debates.
It is also clear that the ANC-led government intends to continue using EE as a transformative strategy for the years to come. The National Plan and Vision for 2030 recently released by the National Planning Commission (NPC) depicts EE as a central tool for broadening economic participation over the next ten years and describes it as one of government’s ‘more successful programmes’ since 1994 – although this seems inconsistent with public attitudes and evaluations, as well as those of the CEE. The NPC also recommends that over this period, ‘race should continue to be the main determinant of selection’ in workplace appointments.
EE has perhaps been flawed from the start. Its achievements are demonstrably limited to date, and are viewed with considerable scepticism among the public – including those whom it ostensibly intends to benefit most. Yet given the extent of public support for its principles and the still-pressing need for redress, perhaps there is still hope that improved and more innovative application could lead to the more inclusive economy it first aimed to achieve?
Kate Lefko-Everett is senior project leader for the Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. A version of this article first appeared online for the SABC.