Affirmative action’s time has come and gone — tackle present injustices rather than those of the past

21 March 2022 by Ghaleb Cachalia

At university, a professor whom I admired for his scholarly erudition once told me that he marked students down by way of some sort of reverse affirmative action ranking if they were white, attractive and wealthy, so as to provide others who were “less privileged” with the benefit of what later became known as a level playing field. I was a young undergrad at a prominent British university and this was in the late 1970s.

I remember being somewhat disturbed by this honest, if questionable, disclosure, but I had other priorities at the time — balancing the finishing of my overdue essays with the allure of the squash court, the barrels of real ale in the student bar, the politics of the students’ union and the many attractive young women who graced the halls and lawns of that venerable institution.

It did cross my mind at the time that at least he wasn’t marking up the “less privileged” and nor was he lowering the bar; he was simply making it tougher for those whom he saw as blessed by inherited benefit and circumstances of their birth.

More than a decade before that, in the US, President JF Kennedy had issued an Executive Order action for the first time by instructing federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”.

This pioneering implementation of affirmative action, intended to give equal opportunities in the workforce to all US citizens and not to give special treatment to those discriminated against, was the forerunner of the ideas and practice that inspired my professor who had grown up in the formative liberal flowering and progressive politics of the 1960s.

Fast-forward to the 1980s and we see the emergence of discourses on privilege and the imperative to “check your privilege”, based on the idea that certain groups and individuals benefit from unearned rewards based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc and that this requires ongoing attention by way of acknowledgement, smoothening and even self-flagellation — all of which has fuelled a polarisation on how and whether social identities grant or deny privilege.

This was accompanied by a shift in the aim of affirmative action from delivering equality to championing equity in the allocation of resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. It draws heavily on a moral justification for redressing historical injustice without acknowledging that the moral right to demand redress fades as time passes and that we should perhaps be concentrating more on tackling present injustices, rather than focusing on the past and how it affects the present.

In our race-riven country, the evolving trajectory of racial remedies and attempts at social engineering needs to be seen against a World Bank report released on 9 March that describes South Africa, the largest country in the Southern African Customs Union, as “the most unequal country in the world, ranking first among 164 countries in the World Bank’s global poverty database”.

All attempts by successive governments since 1994 to wipe away the legacy of apartheid and colonialism have failed to narrow the imbalance between rich and poor, with 3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in a country of 60 million.

Moreover, Thomas Piketty’s World Inequality Lab report (2021) shows that while black South Africans have outnumbered whites in the richest 10% of the population for about seven years, the gap between South Africa’s richest and poorest hasn’t narrowed and top black incomes have increased significantly as opposed to any increased wealth for the poorest — who also happen to be largely black.

So, what is the answer to our national problem? Is it, as Louis P Pojman, an anti-war and civil rights activist in the 1960s and author of more than 100 philosophy texts asks in a 1998 contribution to the International Journal of Applied Philosophy: “Increased welfare? More job training? More support for education? Required licensing of parents to have children? Negative income tax? More support for families or for mothers with small children?”

All of these, he argues, have merit and should be part of the national debate. But, as he is at pains to point out, “One policy [that] is not a legitimate part of the solution… is reverse, unjust discrimination” — however well-intentioned.

His thesis is that we should promote equal opportunity, as much as is feasible in a free market economy, and reward people according to their individual merit and that by giving people what they deserve as individuals, rather than as members of groups, we show respect for their inherent worth. 

Instead of engaging along the lines suggested by Pojman and notwithstanding our eye-wateringly high unemployment rate of 46.6%, the ANC government appears hell-bent on introducing job reservation via workplace quotas for foreigners with caps on numbers employed accompanied by bans on employment in certain industry sectors. Additionally, the current Employment Equity Amendment Bill empowers the labour minister to set race-based numerical targets or quotas across the economy.

What began, in recent history, as an initiative to foster equal opportunities to those who had been hitherto excluded — an unimpeachably laudable and ground-breaking act — has morphed over time, encouraged by proponents of critical race theory and social justice warriors into what Lindsay Bremner, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, describes as the “contradictory space” inhabited by many of South Africa’s new black elite “where the colour of one’s money rapidly replaces skin colour as the currency of showy success” and where “acquisitiveness goes hand in hand with that other must-have suburban attitude: lack of curiosity about everyone else”.

A pity that this affirmation has left large swathes of impoverished black South Africans behind and others excluded. The old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is perhaps apposite here. 

Source:  Daily Maverick at