Tackling the challenges of righting the past fairly

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

THERE is a simplistic logic to race-based affirmative action that remains attractive to many South Africans 20 years after the official scrapping of race-based discrimination.

This is that to right a wrong you need to do the opposite of whatever caused that wrong. So, in the case of apartheid policies that prejudiced particular groups to varying degrees on the basis of race, the solution must be to apply policies that benefit those groups, again on the basis of race and to the degree to which they were discriminated against.

This approach forms the basis of the government’s affirmative action, employment equity and black economic empowerment policies. The trouble is that it tends to perpetuate the core problem, albeit in a different form.

The move to a democratic dispensation based on a constitution was not motivated just by a desire to reverse the effects of centuries of discrimination by whites against blacks. It was supposed to be about recognising all people as individuals with basic human rights rather than being forever defined as members of one or another race or cultural group. The battle was against racism per se, not just the apartheid version.

It is true that the constitution specifically recognises the need to “level the playing field” after centuries of anti-Black racism, and with good reason: unfair advantage endures long after the cause has been removed.

So the conundrum is how to compensate for disadvantage without unwittingly locking society into a permanent obsession with race, and avoid to compound the injustices of the past by creating a new generation of racial-discrimination victims.

It’s not an easy circle to square, especially when favouring one group in the interests of affirmative action necessarily prejudices another comprising individuals who were not direct beneficiaries of apartheid. Almost a generation after the first democratic election, such situations are bound to crop up more frequently, so the risk of prejudice — and favouring a new elite — increases year by year.

The University of Cape Town (UCT), which has been using race as a proxy for disadvantage and applying affirmative action in its admission policies since well before 1994, deserves credit for grasping this contentious nettle by establishing a commission into student admissions and calling for submissions.

A year and more than 80 submissions later and the commission has released a handful of alternatives to the race-based admissions policy for discussion, prompting the inevitable uproar.

But once the smoke generated by vested interests has been penetrated, a number of interesting possibilities emerge, which could inform the debate in society over how to use the scarce skills that are available and avoid appointing unqualified people to key jobs, while providing opportunities for those who were genuinely disadvantaged in the past.

The issue under review is whether it is possible to base affirmative policies on actual disadvantage rather than using race as a proxy for disadvantage. Among the suggestions being considered are that the schools prospective students attended, the education level of their parents, the language spoken at home, and the family income level, be taken into account.

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price is adamant that the university remains committed to affirmative action and that an admissions system based solely on matric results is a long way off. The unfortunate reality is that matric pass marks are as much a sign of the quality of the school attended as a reflection of the pupil’s talent.

And research has shown that black students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend former whites-only schools still achieve lower marks on average than their white counterparts, indicating that family history, home circumstances and support systems play a role.

UCT doesn’t yet have the answer, and it’s a fair assumption that for some time race will continue to form part of the criteria it uses to decide which students will be admitted. But the fact that the university has started this process, is an important step in the direction of a truly non-racial future for SA.

Story by: Dave Marrs marrsd@bdfm.co.za

Marrs is Cape editor.

Source: Business Day

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