How I Changed My Mind on Affirmative Action

Or, how I left the upside down.

I used to think I kind of understood affirmative action, BEE, quotas etc.

The argument made me feel good about myself as an enlightened white person. I now realise that made me a kind of intellectual accomplice of some of the worst ideological thinking present in our country.

Initially, accepting affirmative action seemed like the pragmatic thing to do in the post-apartheid era. Of course, we need to pay for our sins. Of course, we need to create an aspirational class of black executives and sportsmen.

I still think there is a pragmatic argument to be made here – especially from a white perspective. Yet philosophically, it is more important now for the whole country and the whole world to break the spell of identity politics.

I think the penny finally dropped for me as to how wrong I was when I had a long and heated conversation with a black colleague at work about the issue.

At one stage, I declared that because of my age, I could not be held responsible for the crimes of apartheid. He became vehemently angry, saying that it was my people and that I benefitted from the system therefore my hands were dirty somewhat.

(In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering whether my ancestral line was materially better off for having emigrated from Switzerland after World War II – I think that is highly doubtful.)

He presented the classic argument for affirmative action – redressing imbalances because of prior group oppression.

The word group jumped out at me.

Surely the highest principle of justice is giving somebody their due – free from bias or prejudice.

But in our modern world of group identity politics, we have a new type of justice – social justice – in which seemingly that principle is overturned.

As far as I can tell, most left-wing proponents of identity politics embrace this. No longer will people be given their individual due, but rather their destiny will be shaped by their identity.

In short, social justice is upside down justice. Because, when it is applied, there is every chance not only that a person will not be given their due, but equally that a person of privilege, because of their racial identity, will benefit at the expense of a person of no privilege, again because of their identity.

I had always thought to myself, well, okay, this is our country now. We need to re-balance the past.

But now I find myself haunted by the words of Black Consciousness founder, Steve Biko. His two most famous slogans, before being brutally murdered by apartheid security police, were:

1. Black man, you are on your own.
2. Black is beautiful.

In other words, don’t define yourself by your lack of whiteness. You can achieve your own liberation. Be bold.

I wonder what Biko would have thought of BEE and quotas.

I have no way of knowing, of course.

But objectively looking at the tenets of Black Consciousness, I wonder whether so much of affirmative action does not simply replicate the paternalism and psychological degradation of apartheid’s separate development doctrine.

When there is a lower standard in the workplace for people of colour, yes, they may be advanced quicker along our hierarchies, but at what deeper social cost to the fabric of our society?

And does such a practice also tacitly assume that new elite institutions can no longer be built in our country, by people of colour and that rather only existing ones can be ‘transformed’?

In other words, dropping affirmative action may be crucial not only for ensuring justice for individuals, but equally for empowering the previously disadvantaged.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his latest book, ‘David and Goliath’, speaks about how advantages can often turn to disadvantages, and vice versa. Along these lines, he comes out as being against affirmative action on pragmatic grounds as being elevated to a position in which you cannot naturally thrive will simply not benefit a person in the long run.

I think he’s right.

But I think he’s right because philosophically the concept of merit is something that we can simply no longer take for granted in a highly competitive world.

The health of any society is so tenuous and conditional, that there is simply no time or room to play politics with key social roles.

The disadvantaged will benefit far more when our civil servants, teachers, sportsmen, and business leaders, are driven to be the best they can be, rather than being focused on their group identity which has very little bearing on how they do their work.

As the shrewd Chinese dictator, Deng Xiaopeng, noted, when he opened up Chinese markets in order to alleviate poverty, it doesn’t matter what colour a cat is as long as it catches rats. Yes, we are altering Marxist doctrine, but the poor are benefitting, and surely that is the point, and not how politically correct we are being?

But there’s also something deeper at stake in this debate than catching rats, or alleviating poverty.

A nation that signals its commitment to true justice, rather than upside down social justice, will in the long run generate far more trust and cohesion amongst its citizens.

So how would this practically work in South Africa?

Well, if I could wave my magic monarchical wand, I would abolish all forms of discrimination based on race or gender. But I would keep intact preferential funding and resourcing of the actual poor.

Turn BEE and affirmative action into an incentivised empowerment programme for workers and the poor, not for blacks and women. Instead of quotas in sport, hand out tons of scholarships for promising young poor sportsmen and women to go to good schools and universities. Instead of BEE equity deals, make sure workers have a voice and stake in their workplaces.

Instead of land expropriation, develop massive training programmes for aspiring young farmers who currently lack capital.

There’s a lot we can still do to create a just society without resorting to the upside down justice of identity politics and affirmative action.

But, for God’s sake, and the sake of the poor, let’s not lose our grip on the fundamental element of any decent civilization – give each man his due, without bias or prejudice.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character… when all God’s children will be able to join hands and sing… ‘Free at last, Great God Almighty, we are free at last.’”