The strange unpopularity of affirmative action

Alex | Oct 01, 2009
RW Johnson analyses the latest survey data on employment equity.
THE FIRST indication that, despite government's enthusiasm for affirmative action, the policy might not be particularly popular with the electorate, came in a post election survey conducted in September/October 1994. We found 61 per cent of all voters (including 52 per cent of Africans) wanted to see appointments made strictly on merit "even if some people do not make progress as a result".

The difficulty in testing opinion about affirmative action, however, is that the term often means different things to different people. It was only in our October 1996 survey, at the mid-point of the first democratic Parliament, that we were able to test attitudes in detail, asking respondents to envisage a variety of different situations in the labour market.


The first, and most extreme, option we gave people was "only blacks should be appointed to jobs for a very long time ahead". The second option was that "only blacks should be appointed until those in employment were demographically representative of the entire population". This option, it should be noted, coincides broadly with the aims of the government's employment equity legislation. Given that currently far more blacks are unemployed than other groups this would also entail a very strong measure of racial preference.

The third option was that in general "appointments should be made on the basis of merit, but if two candidates were equal the preference should be given to the black candidate". This is a fairly tough definition of affirmative action since, in many cases, institutions feel they are justified in appointing blacks who are slightly less than equally good and also that some positions (for example, secretaries, receptionists etc) are already more or less reserved for certain racial groups as employers who find it impossible to find black professionals seek at least to guarantee a multi-racial workforce at lower levels. Clearly our third option fell some way short of this new status quo.

The fourth option was that "appointments should be made strictly on the basis of merit but that there should be special training to help previously disadvantaged groups". Finally there was the option that "all appointments should be on the basis of merit alone without any special training being available". Obviously only very determined opponents of affirmative action would pick the last option.


When we first put these detailed options into our October 1996 survey we were surprised to find that less than a quarter of respondents were in favour of the strong first and second measures, while a clear majority - 54 per cent - were in favour of the last option - appointment on merit only.

Four years later the country now has detailed affirmative action legislation in the Employment Equity Act and the passage of this law was accompanied by a continuous government propaganda barrage. Many goverment departments, including foreign affairs and the treasury, are currently undergoing thorough transformation. Would this experience have altered people's opinion we wondered? The answer is yes, opinion has changed, but it has not swung in the direction that might have been anticipated (Table 1). The number in favour of the strong versions of affirmative action has actually declined slightly to 22 per cent. Those taking the middle view have declined from 22 per cent to 19 per cent and the proportion who are flatly against affirmative action and want appointments on the basis of merit only has increased slightly from 54 per cent to 56 per cent. This is a remarkable result given the effort the government has taken to influence public opinion in the opposite direction.

Table 1: Attitudes to affirmative action : all races

  Oct 1996  Jun/Jul 2000 
Only blacks for a long time 11 
Only blacks until representative 14 11
 Blacks preferred if all else equal 22 19
 Merit only plus special training 16 21
 Merit only no special training 38 35
 Don't know 1 2


In 1996 white opinion and particularly white Afrikaner opinion was massively hostile to affirmative action. Table 2 shows that although white opinion remains strongly negative, it has softened considerably with no less than 11 per cent of English-speaking whites favouring quite strong measures in favour of affirmative action and only 38 per cent - just half the proportion seen in 1996 - now oppose in principle any form of affirmative action.

Table 2: Attitudes to affirmative action : whites by language

   Oct 1996  Jun/Jul 2000


  Eng  Afrik  All Eng    Afrik  All
Only blacks for a long time  -  - 3  - 1
Only blacks until representative -  - - 8  1
 Blacks preferred if all else equal 7  7 26  11 16
 Merit only plus special training 14  8  10 24  31 29 
 Merit only no special training 75  83  80 38 56  50 
 Don't know 3  1  1 -  -


Opposition from Afrikaans-speaking whites has also declined, although they remain hostile. There is no doubt that this dramatic softening of white opinion in favour of affirmative action represents a considerable victory for the government view of the matter. In practice whites have learnt to live with a degree of affirmative action and now, however grudgingly, see it as normal in the workplace. A similar evolution has taken place among Asians, as Table 3 shows, although Asians remained hostile overall.

Table 3: Attitudes to affirmative action : Asians

  Oct 1996  Jun/Jul 2000 
Only blacks for a long time
Only blacks until representative 2 18
 Blacks preferred if all else equal 9 20
 Merit only plus special training 24 8
 Merit only no special training 58 48
 Don't know 1 2


There was very much less change among coloured voters (Table 4). However, the proportion of coloureds favouring extreme affirmative-action measures has halved from 14 per cent to 7 per cent, while those opposed in principle to anything other than appointment on merit has remained steady at just over two thirds. This is striking given the fact that coloured opinion has become noticeably more friendly to the ANC in the period.

Table 4: Attitudes to affirmative action : coloureds

  Oct 1996  Jun/Jul 2000 
Only blacks for a long time
Only blacks until representative 6 5
 Blacks preferred if all else equal 17 22
 Merit only plus special training 26 26
 Merit only no special training 42 41
 Don't know 2 2


The most significant finding, however, concerns the change in African opinion (Table 5). The proportion of African respondents in favour of extreme affirmative action policies has declined slightly from 30 per cent to 28 per cent, while those who believe that race should be given some role in appointments, even if only on the margin, is down from 27 per cent to 19 per cent. On the other hand the proportion opposed to affirmative action in any form has grown from 41 per cent to 51 per cent.

Table 5: Attitudes to affirmative action : Africans

  Oct 1996  Jun/Jul 2000 
Only blacks for a long time 11  15 
Only blacks until representative 19 13
 Blacks preferred if all else equal 27 19
 Merit only plus special training 15 20
 Merit only no special training 26 31
 Don't know 2 2


Thus the paradox is that opinion towards affirmative action has remained roughly stable overall, but that this figure for all races conceals movements in favour of such policies among whites and Asians, who stand to lose from the policy, but a strong movement against such policies on the part of Africans who are its potential beneficiaries.

Why has this evolution of black opinion taken place? In 1996 the pattern was extremely clear - poorer Africans were likely to be opposed to affirmative action. Thus well over half (53 per cent) of all those reporting no income preferred the fourth and fifth options, whereas this figure fell to 35-36 per cent among the highest income categories. Similarly those favouring the most extreme forms of affirmative action were more than twice as likely to be found in the top income groups of black voters as in the bottom groups.


It was not difficult to understand this: affirmative action can benefit only a minority after all and this minority is itself a privileged group - those Africans with sufficient skills and education to compete for jobs previously held by whites, Asians or coloureds. In practice an African domestic worker, farm worker or miner, for example, has nothing to gain from affirmative action. Moreover, such people stand to be hurt by affirmative action: if it means that less competent people replace more competent people in jobs in national or local government then services are likely to decline in value.

In addition, one must never underestimate the work ethic and its corresponding merit ethic among Africans who for decades believed passionately that job reservation on racial lines was wrong and that merit alone should be rewarded. The sight of already privileged Africans receiving "unfair" advantages in the labour market, while the poor majority remained stuck at the bottom was clearly not one which working-class and unemployed black people found at all attractive in 1996.


By 2000 however the pattern had changed. While those with no income at all continued to be most hostile to affirmative action, they have now been joined by larger than average proportions of the black professional group and the African upper-income groups. It is the middle income group who now have the strongest views in favour of affirmative action. One explanation is that the best-educated black professionals feel they do not need to benefit from affirmative action and do not wish to believe that they owe their success in any way to racial preference rather than merit. Thus paradoxically those with the most to gain from affirmative action, the best-educated professional blacks, are now decidedly hesitant about the policy.


Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that 52 per cent of African ANC supporters are flatly against affirmative action (preferring the last two alternatives we offered them), and a further 19 per cent favour the relatively limited notion of affirmative action in our third option. Only 27 per cent favour the strongest form denoted by the first two options. In 1996 the corresponding figures were 41 per cent in favour of the last two options, 29 per cent in favour of the third option and 29 per cent in favour of the first two options. Thus ANC opinion has shifted heavily against affirmative action, leaving IFP voters as the group now least opposed to this policy, though even their support has slipped since 1996.


It is difficult to believe that the policy has much future. Both the Employment Equity Act and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Discrimination Act are probably impossible to implement even before the onset of Aids, which will remove large numbers of skilled Africans from the workforce over the next five to ten years. Now, with the Aids epidemic upon us and the policy anyway losing crucial support in its core constituency, it is surely doomed.