Employment Equity: Ticking Boxes or True Transformation?

On 4 May, the IJR co-hosted a public dialogue on employment equity with the Rethinking ‘Race’ and Affirmative Action in the United States and South Africa project. (more…) Here are excerpts from presentations made by panelists Dr. Zimitri Erasmus, Ian Ollis, MP, James Ngculu, Kashif Wicomb, and Ernst Roets.

Image of Zimitri Erasmus by Michaela Verity


In my view, the specific objective of employment equity (EE) is to create opportunities and increase access for those historically excluded from the semi-skilled and skilled job market, and from further education – people excluded specifically on the basis of apartheid race categories, gender and disability. Its broader objective is to enable the successful use of such opportunities with a view to building a more socially just society, and with a view to cultivating learning and work settings in which the experiences and voices of all residents of South Africa can be heard, valued and challenged.

The meeting of these objectives has been highly uneven, partly because most forms of EE implementation have focused more on numbers of people from the different apartheid race categories, than on the ethos of social justice that is meant to accompany those numbers. Demographics have overtaken the politics of EE, in light of South Africa’s history of exclusion. This is not to say that the way these demographics are used is not itself political.

Furthermore, those who have until now benefited from EE have for the most part been among the privileged in their respective communities. In other words, EE programmes have in most cases been implemented separately from issues of broader social justice.

For me, one facet of the most effective way of realising these goals is to have a multi-pronged strategy that aligns EE with issues of broader social justice, such as poverty, unemployment, and access to services. In other words, while EE  attempts to reach the semi-skilled and the skilled, we also need to reach the unskilled and the poor with programmes that change their daily lives. For example, it does not serve the aims of social justice if the demographics of a local  government structure are prioritised over and above the need to deliver effective care and services to poor communities in cases in which local government posts are left vacant if a black person, woman or disabled person is not appointed.

Another facet of a more effective way of realising these goals is to think about ways in which we might move away from using apartheid race categories as proxies for disadvantage, toward indicators that encompass the issues we are trying to address. Our approach to EE implementation should be modified based on what we have learned from both its positive and negative outcomes over the last years. And, to use the terms of Adam Habib and Kristina Bentley, this means moving away from a nativist approach to EE toward a more civic approach.

KASHIF WICOMB, Black Manag ement Forum

Image of Kashif Wicomb and Ernst Roets by Michaela Verity

Transformation, by definition, is a process of change from one qualitative state to another. It can be applied to an individual, an organisation, a product or service, and this is what government essentially aims to achieve through broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) and employment equity (EE).

As South Africans, we must accept the importance of addressing apartheid’s lasting effects. We must also dispel the myths that BBBEE and EE exclude members of particular races or minority groups by design. Affirmative action is actually about inclusion, and not discrimination. Section 42 of the EE Act, which focuses on assessments of compliance, refers to the need for ‘suitably qualified people from and amongst the different designated groups’, who are ‘equitably represented within each occupational category and level in that employers’ workforce’.

Without relying excessively on the ‘numbers game’, recent statistics underscore the need for equity interventions. According to the Commission for Employment Equity, in 2009 South Africa’s economically active population (EAP) was 74% African, 11% coloured, 3% Indian and 12% white. These proportions are clearly not replicated in top management structures across the country, in which only 20% are filled by Africans, 5% by coloured people and 7% by Indians. Sixty-four percent of top senior management positions are filled by our white compatriots.

These data confirm, first, that transformation has not yet been achieved, and further, that current employment practices have not translated into discrimination against minority groups. The sectors that are least transformed are retail, motor repair services, wholesale, trade and commercial agents and allied services. These sectors also lack codes of conduct, or charters that map out employment objectives.

Government, as legislators and the custodians of BBBEE, has focused its transformative efforts on achieving change in five key areas: ownership, management and control, EE, preferential procurement and enterprise development. The private sector has honed in on the issue of enterprise development in particular as an area with prospects for new trade and opportunities for the creation of semi- and low-skilled jobs, as well as in preferential procurement. These emphases are an important contribution, because it is the duty of society at large to address the need for greater economic participation, and not only the state.

I encourage you to consider that when we engage with youth, we should not speak about carrying CVs in one’s backpack, but rather about carrying business plans. We need youth to become job enablers, to form businesses and use BBBEE for this purpose. Provide services to the corporate sector instead of standing in the queue asking for a job. If you understand transformation in this context, it is possible to see that EE and BBBEE are in fact inclusive processes.

Image of James Ngculu by Michaela Verity

JAMES NGCULU, African National Congress

In the past, the colonial and apartheid regimes operated on institutionalised inequality in South Africa, specifically by race. For us within the African National Congress (ANC), the need for measures to reverse the consequences of these policies and encourage greater equality were self-evident. Following the transition to democracy, the Constitution has enjoined South Africa to take measures to redress past racial, gender and other forms of discrimination in order to bring about greater equality. Employment equity (EE) and affirmative action (AA) are among these measures.

First conceptualised by Canadian judge Rosalie Silberman Abella in 1984, employment equity refers to a process for achieving greater equality in workplace opportunities. It recognised that systemic discrimination had to be consciously addressed, and that this could potentially encourage greater stability and national identification.

South Africa promulgated EE legislation in 1998, with the purposes of: promoting equal opportunity and eliminating discrimination, redressing disadvantages, and ensuring equitable representation in all occupational categories and levels in the workplace. Designated groups benefitting from EE, identified by race, gender and physical ability, were specifically marginalised and subjected to state-mandated prejudice under apartheid.

Many South Africans today have embraced a collective amnesia, believing that apartheid respected merit in the workplace more than the current system and that government orchestrated a systemic purge of the public service to make room for post-apartheid appointees after 1994.

In fact, during the negotiated transition the ‘Sunset Clauses’ crafted by Joe Slovo meant that apartheid-regime civil servants – black and white – were able to work out their contracts and stay on in the new government if appointed by vocation. Members of the ‘old guard’ who left of their own volition received handsome severance packages. These ‘golden handshakes’ appear to have been quickly forgotten.

Vacated posts were, of course, filled with competent candidates, the majority of whom were black. However, there was – and remains – urgency to the implementation of greater workplace equity, and the 1998 EE legislation was a measure to move matters along. Yet reports from Statistics South Africa and the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), among others, still indicate that black graduates are far less likely to find suitable employment within six months of graduating than their white counterparts.

The record suggests that when left to its own devices, the private sector will systemically discriminate. Of 3 952 directors of JSE-listed companies, 3 311 are white, and only 5% are women.

Both EE and AA are designed to render themselves unnecessary, and ultimately bring about an environment in which the state no longer needs to intervene to bring about equity. These policies have indeed yielded positive results to date. Earlier this year, Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus announced that 19% of senior positions in South Africa are held by women, compared to 17% in Canada, 14% in the USA and 8% in Australia. While improvements in racial representation are still required, South Africa has already surpassed developed countries with regard to gender.

South Africa faces a choice: either to devise policies that accelerate greater equality, or to leave matters to other forces and invite chaos. To me it is obvious which course of action makes the most sense.

IAN OLLIS, MP, Democratic Alliance

Image of Ian Ollis and James Ngculu by Michaela Verity

I currently represent the Democratic Alliance (DA) on the parliamentary portfolio committee on labour, which will soon be working to improve on proposed draft amendments to the Employment Equity (EE) Act. As these have not been entirely accepted by the public, they are being redrafted by the labour department and debated within the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), before ultimately returning to parliament. The time, therefore, is right for this discussion.

There seems to be relatively wide acceptance that the EE Act is not achieving its goals. Our committee has heard presentations emphasising the need for post-apartheid redress, particularly for severely disadvantaged South Africans without skills and facing bias in the workplace. Secondly, we need to turn this situation around, and think of ways to go forward.

Certainly, ‘box-ticking’ is problematic at present. Every government form requires the ticking of boxes. I am a gay South African and there is no box for this, though some maintain that we were previously disadvantaged. However, categories reinforce the problem, rather than representing the dream we have for South Africa’s future.

Prospects for increasing equity are also compounded by issues of high unemployment and skills shortages. Even South Africans with university degrees are not finding jobs today. Our legislation really needs to take into account a longer-term view, and incorporate skills development and training. Current shortfalls are not going to be alleviated quickly or easily. New forms of social engineering are not a solution to the problems caused by apartheid. Rather, legislation needs to help ‘normalise’ our current situation.

To share an anecdote, the black man sitting next to me on the plane this morning is deputy chair of a large independent mine in South Africa. When I asked him about his impressions of EE legislation, he responded that it should be scrapped. When I asked why, he replied: ‘All we are achieving with [EE legislation] is changing shares between companies, from one privileged group to another. We are not doing anything about the large numbers of unemployed people, many of them black, who don’t have jobs. You give points because of changes in the faces of companies, and among their shareholders. I would like to see points awarded to the guy with nothing who starts his own business, builds that company up from nowhere, and employs people. He’s helping so many people, not just changing the colour scheme of boards and shareholders.’

We definitely need to bring about change in South Africa and we have not arrived yet by any means. However, the current system is not working well, and box-ticking and stereotypes have been inculcated in the legislative process. We need to find a better way.

Image of Ernst Roets by Michaela Verity

ERNST ROETS, Afriforum

I would like to start by referring to the case of Renate Barnard case, a police officer who applied for a new opening in her department in 2005. The position focused on promoting service delivery within the SAPS, and Barnard’s application received almost 90% approval based on her performance and experience. She was rated almost 20% better than the  applicant in second place, and was unanimously recommended for appointment. However, because she was a white woman, she was not offered the job.

The position was re-advertised. Barnard re-applied, again receiving almost 90% approval from a new panel. She was once again recommended for appointment, this time to more senior officials, but was once again turned down.

When Barnard applied for the position a third time, a decision was taken to discontinue the process altogether. Perceiving this to be racial discrimination, Barnard took her case to court, and won. The police department filed an appeal, in which it argued that consideration of racial demographics in the workplace should carry more weight than service delivery.

While we are unsure of the outcome of the case, it is a good illustration of our concerns over affirmative action (AA). The dramatic irony of AA in South Africa is the difference between its aims and its outcomes. We live in a very unequal country, and we have tremendous concerns about poverty. Addressing these issues is a non-negotiable starting point, over which there is little disagreement. However, practically speaking, politicians and decision-makers are contemplating how to rule out the categorising of people by skin colour, and in fact their response is to do just that.

The first issue relates to our understanding of equality. AA purports to be a response to the need for greater equality, but the debate has been reduced to statistics alone. There is a perception that if we have two different people fulfilling the same job, equality has arrived. There is no consideration of deeper, substantive equality.

Another main concern is that our current policy is outcomebased, when we should be focusing on in our inputs. If a team of runners wants to reach the finish line at the same time, this does not mean having different starting points. Rather, there needs to be investment in proper training facilities, the building of a good gym, and provision of the right takkies.

The International Labour Organisation recommends that AA should not be a permanent clause in legislation, but should rather be a temporary tool for eradicating racialism. That’s not what we see in South Africa today.

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