Affirmative action isn’t racist, is it? I mean, you’ve probably heard the argument before. Affirmative action is supposedly “reverse racism” because it’s a race-based policy and, in a sense, is an “eye-for-an-eye” revenge strategy. This is flawed for a number of reasons because it misunderstands the rationale behind affirmative action and the meaning of racism itself. So, firstly, let’s take a look at what racism actually means. The most popular definition of racism is: “the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others” (emphasis mine). Now, keeping that definition in mind, let’s look at a few key points that determine whether AA is racist or not.
“It’s wrong to tie white born-frees with chains to the past indefinitely, and in so doing create a new generation of disadvantaged.” – Pieter Mulder (Freedom Front Plus)
It’s important to compare the intentions of Apartheid laws and affirmative action if we’re going to come to an educated conclusion. Apartheid’s economic laws were about deliberate exclusion of black people from executive positions and quality institutions of education. Why? Because they operated under the assumption that black people were inherently inferior to their white counterparts. And, because most opportunities were handed to white people, the large majority of South Africa’s wealth still remains in white hands. So what should we do? We can’t wish institutional oppression – and its consequences – away. It has to be actively addressed. As such, affirmative action correctly acknowledges the unfair exclusion of black people and seeks to include them back into institutions of power. Also, AA policies aren’t about hoarding capital and resources to black people. They’re about redistributing wealth and opportunity from an elite few (total white population in South Africa stands at just under 10%) to the previously disadvantaged majority.
“We shall ensure that affirmative action is implemented. We shall deliberately empower black people because you were marginalised. We must deliberately bring you to the level of your fellow white counterparts. You must be given preference. If there is a white person asking for this job and a black person asking for the same job, as long as you have the same qualification, a black person must get the job because we want to empower you.” – Julius Malema, during the EFF’s manifesto launch.
Secondly, to call affirmative action racist is to ignore the historical and social context that makes its existence necessary. Had there been no policies and institutions that favoured white South Africans at the expense of black people, there wouldn’t be a need for redress.
“The DA believes in a truly broad-based empowerment policy that recognizes and rewards skills, hard work and dedication.” – The Democratic Alliance’s website, regarding their affirmative action policies.
Another popular criticism is that employment should be based on merit and not race. You’ve probably heard the ‘I don’t want my pilot to drive my plane just because he/she is black’ argument. But here’s the thing: no one’s driving your plane just because they’re black – they’re also qualified. While race is a key determinant, it’s not the only one. No one’s taking unqualified black people and hoisting them into positions of power. Also, another irony of this argument is that it supposedly advocates merit over race while it is an implicit critique of blackness. Who’s to say, just because someone is an affirmative action candidate, they don’t have more merit or capability than their white counterpart? The inference that black people are inferior or have less capability than white people is, itself, racist.
So, love it or hate it, affirmative action plays an important part in addressing the economic disparities Apartheid created. To call it “reverse racism” is disingenuous and plain stupid.
During last week’s State of the Nation debate in Parliament, Jacob Zuma promised to intensify the implementation of affirmative action policies. This comes in light of recent calls by opposition parties – mainly the Freedom Front Plus’ Pieter Mulder – to scrap AA because its focus on race is also supposedly discriminatory.
“Honourable Mulder decried affirmative action but in looking at statistics, it is clear that we need to do more,” stated President Zuma, continuing, “It is important to look at reality. This cry about affirmative action does not want to disappear. I think [there is] a failure to understand the history of this…a deliberate, long term programme to exclude black people from the economy,” concluded the President.
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