Competent white men need not panic

"Equity in employment does not mean affirmative action which has a connotation of tokenism imported from the US."

Equity in employment does not mean affirmative action which has a connotation of tokenism imported from the US — “an approach now discredited", writes the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Mamphela Ramphele in a newspaper article last month. The debate she complains has been reduced to a racial one, while gender and disability have been sidelined. However, her explanation of the new criteria for appointing deans at UCT is not entirely encouraging. Black candidates from privileged backgrounds, she said, would be favoured over coloured or white candidates (including women) from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Symbolism is also important,” she added. “It matters that I am a vice-chancellor in a province that was a coloured labour preference area and that is still controlled by the National Party.”

Nor is her rejection of the US approach convincing. After all the government gratefully accepted the help of the radical black lawyer, Deval Patrick, under the US-South Africa bi-national commission arrangements, when drawing up the Employment Equity bill. Patrick was assistant Attorney-General from 1994-1997 and one of his first actions, as Clinton’s top civil rights enforcer, was to reverse the previous administration’s support for Sharon Taxman. She was the white business studies teacher employed at a high school in Piscataway, New Jersey which decided to retrench one job. Either she or a black female colleague had to go and the school chose Taxman for retrenchment in the interests of racial diversity. Taxman sued and ultimately won. She was re-hired in 1992, but continued to seek back pay.

Enter Patrick, who filed a new affidavit hoping that her case would eventually be overturned by the Supreme Court. But when civil rights groups realised last year that the Supreme Court was very likely to uphold the original ruling — that race should not be a basis for diversifying the workforce — they panicked and actually raised the funds for Taxman’s out of court settlement.

Still, Deval successfully defended affirmative action against its increasingly vocal critics and companies continue to fall foul of the law (see below). Besides hefty fines, “sensitivity” training has become a common penalty. A giant Chicago printing company implemented such training for its employees following a discrimination lawsuit in 1993, only to find itself defending another suit. One black worker complained that he was forced to sit through films showing lynchings in the old South. The purpose of the movies — to make white workers confront their racism.

So let’s hope that Ramphele is right, and that this country avoids the discredited US approach. As she wrote:
“Competent white men, who understand the extent they have been advantaged by past policies and who seek to enable others to gain opportunities and develop their talents, have nothing to fear”.