Could affirmative action be helping white people?

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. March 24, 2011

By Anton I Botha

Talking about affirmative action has become rather hazardous in contemporary South Africa. One runs the risk of being labelled either a racist or, as the ANCYL would have it, a “counter-revolutionary”. What you are about to read is no doubt going to ruffle some feathers among both black and white audiences. So before I continue I should probably declare my own position on the matter. I am a white male, and I would like to think I both understand, and agree with, the reasons for affirmative action.

The merits of the legislation, although not perfect, are not what I aim to debate in this piece. Rather, 20 years since affirmative action first appeared on the South African political landscape little has changed in the socio-economic demographics of this country. Although South Africa now sports a couple of new white squatter camps and Soweto now has a millionaire’s drive, I think we can agree that poverty is still mainly a black problem. It would seem therefore that although on paper affirmative action aims to do one thing, it has also had some unintended consequences.

This idea of unintended consequences or un-effects (as I like to call them) was one I encountered in Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s books Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. I loved the way these two rather off-the-wall thinkers detail a number of un-effects of governance systems.

They outline how the decrease in US crime rates in the 1990s could be directly linked to a Supreme Court ruling making abortions universally available to women in 1975. They also show how George W Bush’s education policy of “no child left behind” had the unintended effect of a number of teachers cheating on behalf of students. They also demonstrate, with statistics, how everything from how choosing the wrong name for your child is correlated with success in later life and why being an obsessive parent is unlikely to help your child become an achiever.

The theme of their research is essentially that “people respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable”. And their whole approach is based on the simple idea that “the most powerful law in the universe is the law of unintended consequences”.

This got my old cobweb-covered brain ticking over a bit. Could their line of thinking be applied to affirmative action in the South African context? After all, like some of the policies outlined in Freakonomics, South Africa’s affirmative action is a system aimed at bringing about socio-economic transformation. It could be reasoned that it, too, is susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. Is it therefore possible that affirmative action could actually be helping white people?

Unlike Levitt and Dubner, I do not have the vast quantities of data to support my ideas — all I can rely on is general observation. So theun-effects I have observed remain open to debate and, of course, to data that points to the contrary. I therefore invite commentators to point out bad reasoning on my part. However imperfect my points may be, they might at least provide some useful working hypotheses about why economic transformation has in certain instances benefited whites.

There are three unintended effects of affirmative action I can see as having favoured white people. These are what I like to call the Greener Pastures Effect, the Package Effect and the Godfrey Moloi Effect.

The Greener Pastures Effect is quite simple and I have personally observed it a number of times. Imagine for a moment being a white child born in South Africa since the 1980s. You are likely to have lived through some radical political changes in your formative years. A system that previously gave you an unfair advantage is now re-written not only to take away that advantage but is perceived by those who influence you to disadvantage you. Needless to say most white children of that generation, once they grew up, regarded themselves as disenfranchised because they were taught toperceive themselves as the victims of history.

Even though there are numerous arguments about how this generation of whites still have all sorts of advantages, it makes no difference on an emotional level. That being said, people tend to make economic decisions emotionally, rather than rationally (as all impulse buyers know). So what does an emotionally charged young white person do when their perception is that their country does not want them?

Well, they start looking for Greener Pastures. In the past most white South Africans went to the UK, others went to work on cruise ships, some became security guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently most white graduates head to the Far East to teach English. I bet most people know at least two or three such examples (if not more). Most of these expats do, however, have two things in common: they all earn foreign currency (USD, Euro, Yuan, GBP, etc) and those who return to SA do so with a fair bit of capital.

I know a number of people (of course not all, the overseas party scene is sometimes just too inviting) who have returned with enough money from overseas stints to build a suburban house, purchase a car, and start their own businesses, thereby securing themselves nice upper-middle class existences — something they would not have enjoyed working in the civil service or even in most parts of the private sector. Imagine being 30 with a house and a car but no bond or car payment? By “forcing” whites to consider the economic prospects in other countries, the system of affirmative action has allowed a number of them to return with lots of ZAR, thereby making them wealthier than if they had stayed.

Yet another un-effect is the Package Effect, which came into play in post apartheid South Africa when both the public and private sectors were eager to transform. What happened in both sectors was that older white employees (those 55 and over) were offered “voluntary retrenchment” packages that usually included pension earned to date with some “sweetener” included to expedite the process. As a result of this, a number of older white people walked away with millions of rands-worth of capital that they could either invest or start businesses with. Those who successfully started businesses (of course many didn’t) then went on to employ their immediate family (or the children of their friends) and so the next white generation became economically independent.

The third, and probably the most tenuous, effect of affirmative action is what I have come to call the Godfrey Moloi Effect. Most of you should know who Godfrey Moloi was. He was the self-styled Godfather of Soweto. What made Godfrey Moloi so special was that, despite the fact that he had the whole apartheid apparatus working against him, he managed to succeed. He ran a number of successful businesses despite the fact that security police regularly “confiscated” his inventory and capital equipment and even robbed him of his personal property. He was even incarcerated a number of times. Each one of these hurdles just made the Godfather more resolute. He would always be back and come up with all sorts of innovative ways to overcome the obstacles set by the system.

There is something about some people who when the chips are stacked against them motivates them beyond what they would normally do. Of course this principle does not apply to everyone; if it did then those discriminated against by apartheid should all have been economically successful and we would not currently have white squatter camps. Although selective, the principle outlined is one I have recently observed in some resourceful young white South Africans: a resoluteness to succeed against the odds. Even though, rationally-speaking, the current affirmative action system is not even remotely as discriminatory as that of apartheid, it does not seem to matter on a psychological level.

Understanding these three un-effects (I am sure there are more) does not help fix the very real economic challenges faced by millions of South Africans who have slipped through the economic net. It does however show that, although not immediately obvious, affirmative action has given whites all sorts of unintended opportunities. Therefore — and despite what some populist leaders might like us to think — our current predicament might actually be furthered by the very systems put in place to resolve it. It would therefore seem to me that the current capital landscape is less the result of vindictiveness on the part of the rich than the un-effects of the very systems geared toward addressing its inequality.

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