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Affirmative Action Initiative in South Africa

Affirmative action is an initiative adopted by the South African government, which seeks to correct the imbalance of wealth and provide opportunities to the people who were adversely affected as a result of the apartheid regime. It has created a situation where organizations are required to meet specific employment targets for persons of colour in order to operate to the satisfaction of the state. As a result, these people are able to participate in the corporate environment at an accelerated rate. On the contrary, many white South Africans are finding it difficult to obtain their most select employment.

The efficiency of affirmative action is best analyzed by assessing its objective of promoting black representation in the workplace and comparing it to empirical evidence.

Figures provided by the government indicate that the unemployment rate has steadily declined annually since the inception of the study (September 2001). The September 2007 average unemployment rate of 23% is significantly lower than 29.4% in September 2001. This provides evidence that the policy is doing well to provide work to more South Africans. (www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0210/P0210September2007.pdf)

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However, a more in-depth study reveals the change in unemployment rates amongst each population group. The best results have been for black people with a decline from approximately 35% (September 2001) to 26.8% (September 2007). The Indian people in the country also improved from approximately 19% to 10% over the same period. White and coloured unemployment rates have remained relatively static over this period at approximately 5% and 20% respectively. This bodes well for black and Indian people and is a strong indicator that affirmative action is achieving its goals. The policy seems to be failing in its attempt to compensate the coloured population. (www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0210/P0210September2007.pdf)

However, there are problems that are emerging from affirmative action that is having a detrimental effect on the performance on enterprises and the overall success of the economy. The instantaneous and rapid enactment of affirmative action has seen unqualified persons attaining important positions. Many of these people were/are incapable of fulfilling the roles they have been assigned. This has a negative impact on, firstly, the corporation employing these people as they incur costs without the required level of service from their employees. It also adversely affects the consumer, who is dependant upon those employed by organizations to make the best decisions in order to obtain maximum reward. A situation exists whereby unskilled employees are filling skilled positions. (www.sairr.org.za/press-office/institute-opinion)

Another concern is that many white South Africans are leaving the country, resulting in a major shortage of fundamental skills. The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) revealed that between 1995 and 2005, one million white South Africans moved abroad. The lack of adequate services has left the country in desperate need of professionals. These people also served as mentors/teachers to inexperienced employees and accelerated their development in the organizations thus exacerbating the problem of their departure. (www.fin24.com/articles/default/display_article)

Many contend that a weakness of the affirmative action policy is that it creates a minority of rich black people and does not help the rest (www.new.bbc.co.uk). The majority of the black population are unskilled workers without educations. These people are likely to struggle even with affirmative action in place as their employment options are limited to low income earning sectors due to educational and language problems. It is anticipated that the current generation of black children will reap the benefits of the policy. The government has put facilities in place to ensure these people are schooled and can attain funding for universities. These are the real beneficiaries of the system as their employment options are diverse. It would therefore seem that the efficiency of affirmative action should only be interpreted to a significant extent when the current black youth reaches adulthood.

A contentious issue arises when deciphering whether affirmative action is fair. The reality is that apartheid deprived groups of basic needs such as education which hindered their development in the economy. It is necessary that policies are in place to accelerate their participation due to their unfortunate position. Therefore it seems fair that such policies are in place. The people of colour suffered through the white government. Many will never have a fair opportunity of creating a rich lifestyle for themselves.

Affirmative action could be perceived to be unfair to the current and future white youth. These people are borne into a system whereby they are automatically limited in their options. The effective state of affairs is that many white people are paying the price for crimes for which they (the youth) did not commit and played no part. Although the task is more difficult, these people are still able to lead wealthy lifestyles in South Africa.

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One could engage the matter from another perspective with regards to ‘fairness’. Perhaps the current white generation are beneficiaries of the apartheid system. This is due to the fact that during that era, white people were able to acquire employment very easily which often paid high incomes. As a result, much of the white youth of South Africa have attended good schools and experienced financially stable upbringings. This has substantially increased their ability to attain a high level of education at universities leading to success in the working environment. Therefore, white people have an unfair advantage over others due to the inequalities of the past. It would therefore seem appropriate that this advantage were lessened, which is achieved through the affirmative action system.

There is definite reason to believe that affirmative action has had a ‘demeaning’ effect on persons from all groups. On the one hand, many white people lose faith in their future as they get rejected by enterprises. This would likely result in a loss of confidence in not only the system but in themselves. White people would feel inadequate and begin to doubt their abilities. This presents a situation where affirmative action has impacted the self-esteem of individuals.

Similar consequences could occur for persons of colour, although for different reasons. The fact that people are employed by organizations solely due to the colour of their skin may well have a negative psychological impact on these employees. They are made to feel undeserved of attaining their positions by much of the public through widespread publications in the media. At the same time, many of these employees are in fact incapable of performing the roles that they are required to do, exacerbating their feelings of unworthiness when asked to perform such functions. Therefore, the affirmative action policy is potentially depriving these people of natural emotions of success, especially feelings of self-pride or achievement in the workplace as well as a sense of belonging to their organizations.

There is a key issue to analyze prior to assessing the overall accuracy of accusing affirmative action to be inefficient, unfair and demeaning. One needs to clarify the purpose of the policy which is best defined through court law, “The purpose of affirmative action is not to make identified victims (of past discrimination) whole, but rather to dismantle prior patterns of employment discrimination and to prevent discrimination in the future. Such relief is provided to the class as a whole rather than to individual members. No individual is entitled to relief and the beneficiaries need not show that they were victims of discrimination” (www.deneysreitz.co.za). The intentions of affirmative action are not to make white people worse off, but instead improve the economic position of other groups. There are no ideals in place that seek to harm or discriminate against white people.

The other key question that must be asked is whether affirmative action is necessary for South Africa? The country suffers from widespread poverty, especially the black people. These people make up a majority of the population, yet they continuously struggle to assert themselves in the economy. There is an obvious need to alter the difficult living conditions of these people, both now and in the future. The long term solution to the survival and success of these groups is to get them involved actively. Affirmative action ensures that this occurs. The current ‘exodus’ of white people makes it even more important that persons of colour are learning the skills necessary to ensure South Africa is able to run effectively and experience adequate growth.

Affirmative action cannot be perceived as unfair, it should rather be perceived as a necessary initiative for the benefit of the country as a whole. The white group should be willing to forfeit ‘absolute equality’ as a result of their past racism which greatly harmed and setback the country. However, as noted above, there are inefficiencies and demeaning repercussions that have emerged due to affirmative action. It is still too early to interpret overall efficiency. It would make sense to expect improvement in the future as more black children come through the educational system which creates a solid platform for their development and participation. It is clearly not a perfect method, but seems to be the best available solution to counter the current economic imbalance.


  1. Statistics South Africa, Labour Force Survey, pg 11,24, September 2007, [Online], Available: http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0210/P0210September2007.pdf [2008, June 3].
  2. Deneys/Reitz Attorneys, Affirmative Action Case Law Developments, Sheet Metal Workers Industrial Association v EEOC, 11 May 2004 [Online], Available: http://www.deneysreitz.co.za/seminars/item/affirmative_action_case_law_developments,446.html [2008, June 3].
  3. Vuyo Jack, Business Report: The Income Gap is Closing but not Fast Enough, 16 March 2008, [Online], Available: http://www.busrep.co.za/index.php?fSectionId=2512&fArticleId=4304342 [2008, June 3].
  4. Peet van Aardt, FIN24.com: Million Whites leave SA –Study, 24 September 2006, [Online], Available: http://www.fin24.com/articles/default/display_article.aspx?Nav=ns&ArticleID=1518-25_2003186 [2008, June 4].
  5. South African Institute of Race Relations : Signs that South Africa’s affirmative action debate is growing up, [Online], Available: http://www.sairr.org.za/press-office/institute-opinion/signs-that-south-africa2019s-affirmative-action-debate-is-growing-up.html [2008, June 4].
  6. BBC News: SA Poverty Gap Remains, 27 July 2000, [Online], Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/854306.stm [2008, June 4].

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