Analysis: Time to rethink affirmative action

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. By Zoleka Ndayi

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s defence of South Africa’s record on affirmative action (AA) in New York on Monday is debatable.

While the deputy president correctly posits that AA is one of the ways to redress the economic inequalities that are the legacy of apartheid, the policy seems to have the unintended consequences of promoting an “African Renaissance labour market” at the expense of domestic human capital.

This observation suggests that, in line with economic patriotism, the government needs to introduce stringent measures that would promote domestic protectionism on the labour front. The objective would be to prioritise and protect the domestic labour force against competitive non-South African black foreign human capital and thus fully realise the objectives of AA.

While AA is meant to redress the labour imbalances of the apartheid regime, one’s observations show that outside government, the programme has resulted in unintended consequences.

The South African labour market in the private sector and institutions of higher learning is fast witnessing the marginalisation of both black and white South Africans and the deep integration of black non-South Africans into the country’s workforce.

However, even as the foreign human capital provides required skills, sidelining of the available and qualifying local workforce raises fears of a potential backlash, thwarting efforts on domestic socioeconomic development efforts. At a continental level, socioeconomically marginalised South Africans could resort to negative nationalistic tendencies, thus a drawback to the African Renaissance cause.

The hardest hit by the “affirming” and “Africanising” South African labour market is the domestic black native. White and non-South African employers, in both the corporate world and in institutions of higher learning, seem to prefer non-South African blacks over their local counterparts.

In some instances, if not most, potential transformation candidates and available qualifying natives are marginalised. In these cases, black non-South Africans seem to be the beneficiaries of AA and the African Renaissance, at the expense of qualifying natives.

Last year, President Jacob Zuma lamented the failure of AA, attributing this to the notion that leadership of most big companies was still in the hands of whites. As a case in point, The Economist recorded that whites held 75% of senior positions in private companies, while blacks accounted for only 12%. One wonders how many black South Africans are in this minority.

Nonetheless, while some might attribute poor progress of affirming local blacks to their lack of skills, one believes that the most significant challenge lies with the preference of black non-South Africans over locals.

In 2010, it was reported that Eskom recruited blacks from outside the country to meet its AA targets. In this case, whether AA fills the gap of skills shortage or is institution-sponsored discrimination against locals is debatable. What is clear is that it is costly to the country’s socioeconomic development agenda.

The unfortunate result is the displacement of South African human capital in favour of foreigners, and an increase in the unemployment of both domestic black and white nationals.

As the foreign African labour force gets preference over both black and white domestic human capital, even in “non-affirming” positions, it seems the former become the biggest beneficiary in the labour-market of the post-apartheid and African Renaissance, driven by South Africa.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of African Renaissance, the presence of black non-South African human capital in the key sectors of the country’s economy, characterised by a critical skills shortage, is viewed in a positive light. However, given the government’s transformation agenda and the seemingly growing disfavour for the local black labour force, the dominance of foreign nationals and marginalisation of qualifying locals is a cause for concern. The best course of action in this regard is for the government to adopt economic patriotism that entails intensive and labour protectionism.

For example, on the trade front, the government is making impressive strides on economic patriotism. The demand stimulation measures such as “Proudly South African” and “Buy South African” local procurement campaigns are examples of economic patriotism.

Owing to pressure from Cosatu, South Africa also practises supply stimulation economic patriotism in the clothing and textile industry.

This, following job losses estimated at 1.1 million between 2009 and 2010, of which Zwelinzima Vavi estimates 14400 to be from the textile and clothing industry.

Late last year, the government launched its clothing and textile competitiveness programme and its core funding mechanism, the production incentive.

This measure subsidises the clothing, textiles, footwear, leather and leather goods manufacturing industries.

The government needs to apply similar measures on the labour front, not only to protect the South African workforce against the negative effects of the African Renaissance, but to curb the escalating rate of unemployment.

For example, in reaction to rising unemployment in that country, Japan has embarked on labour protectionism in the form of a repatriation plan by paying foreign workers to go home. The objective is to “ease pressure on domestic labour markets and get thousands off unemployment rolls”.

Politicians are urging the government to “stop letting unskilled labourers into Japan” and ensure that jobs are paid well and are filled by Japanese. Here at home, where unemployment is close to 37%, including those who have given up looking for employment, the government is proposing to subsidise firms that employ unskilled and globally uncompetitive youths. This is a noble measure of labour patriotism that needs to be endorsed and supported by all those interested in domestic socioeconomic development. Unlike AA, the measure should be explicit in that it is meant for native South African youth.

It would seem then, for the deputy president to strongly defend AA, he would need to check if it is benefitting the intended beneficiaries, otherwise the government needs to urgently find ways of reconciling African Renaissance and skills shortage with domestic economic patriotism. While there is a need to balance the interests of South Africans with the African Renaissance, the government also needs to protect the local labour force against the “not always competitive” and submissive black foreign human capital.

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