THE GENERAL understanding of affirmative action is that it is about providing opportunities for previously disadvantaged people, which includes people of colour and women.
Although disability and homosexuality continue to be issues of concern, this research does not address these issues. Homosexual staff however, expressed problems of not having their partners recognised and not being given the same rights as partners of heterosexual staff.
The questions that arise then, are "what is affirmative action?" and "who should benefit from affirmative action policies?" The definition affects implementation and is very important in assessing its result.
1. A Contentious Concept
Various groupings see affirmative action as a contentious concept, with a variety of meanings. Innes (1993:6) argues that it has two meanings and purposes, namely to:
i) Overcome discriminatory obstacles that stand in the way of achieving equality of employment; and
ii) Introduce preferential policies aimed at promoting one group over others to achieve equality of employment.
The implementation of affirmative action depends on the specific emphasis of the company and government, through its policies and laws.
2. Origins of Affirmative Action
Affirmative action originated in the United States in the 1960ís. It was a response to pressure by the civil rights movement; thus, race was instrumental in deciding its beneficiaries (Sikhosana 1996). In the United States, unlike South Africa, its purpose was to uplift the position of oppressed minority groups, rather than that of an oppressed majority. Thus, its application and impact in the US would be different from that in South Africa. Nevertheless, affirmative action is a process of transformation. It is evident that the context of the particular country within which the affirmative action operates is of utmost importance (Schreiner 1996).
3. Definition of Affirmative Action
a) General Definition in South Africa
The implementation of affirmative action began in South Africa in 1992. It is thus firmly located in the political transition from apartheid to democracy.
The South African transition brought with it a strong belief that, in addition to political freedom, blacks must also be provided with access to means and resources to overcome their past economic marginalisation. Unless this occurs, the patterns of economic control, ownership and management produced by the apartheid system will remain unchanged even in a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa (Nkuhlu 1993).
Deracialisation and equalisation of economic opportunity will not automatically occur, with the abolition of apartheid laws (Sikhosana 1993). Redressing the effects of past discrimination via social measures is necessary. In achieving these goals, blacks should receive preferential support, have access to resources and be given the opportunity and space to contribute to the development of the organisation and to the economy of the country. Hence the mindset of both blacks and whites has to be changed (Nkuhlu 1993). Affirmative action is thus conceptualised as a tool to bring about a changing set of social and economic relations, in the transition to democracy. Therefore, in South Africa, affirmative action in general is a
Ö part of transformation away from apartheid, poverty and exploitation, towards a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic nation in which the socio-economic conditions of the majority, that is, black working women and men, are substantially transformed in a manner which is empowering (Schreiner 1996:80).
In the early days of political transition, companies implemented affirmative action policies in anticipation of a change in government. They feared that unless they voluntarily changed their policies, blacks would revolt. However, they also acknowledged, and continue to acknowledge, the need to remove obstacles to black advancement. Further, at present, companies must tread a careful path in the implementation of affirmative action policies. This is necessary so that informal discrimination does not replace formal discrimination. Informal discrimination is embedded in attitudes, behaviour, subconscious values and beliefs and is therefore harder to remove (Innes 1993). This is the general context and definition of affirmative action.
b) Closer examination of the definition and beneficiaries of affirmative action in terms of Management and Trade Unions
On closer examination, the definition of affirmative action by trade unions and management is very different. Trade unions view affirmative action in South Africa as a comprehensive strategy to overcome the imbalances caused by Apartheid and racism. It is therefore collective empowerment, the aim of which is to make up for long term deficits. Affirmative action seen in this light should address wide-ranging goals of work-place equality rather than simply developing a small number of management trainees. Further, trade unions, unlike management, target gender as well as racial discrimination. Affirmative action for trade unions reflects Schreinerís (1996) view that it is a process of development and empowerment.
Management on the other hand generally sees affirmative action as any action that is taken specifically to overcome the results of past discriminatory practices (Hall and Albrecht in Hugo 1986:55). Further, as a process of identifying, recruiting, training and promoting blacks (and less often women) into junior management positions (Alperson 1993a:120). For business, affirmative action is necessary to increase access, affordability and the creation of opportunities. This ensures that blacks take an interest in the business which would then serve to enhance the company (Thomas 1994; Montsi 1994). Thus, the focus by management is on individual empowerment. (This view is, in fact, reflective of earlier beliefs of white managers that blacks are not interested in the company.)
The search for consensus between management and trade unions continues.
4. Beneficiaries of Affirmative Action
It is clear that people of colour should benefit from affirmative action. This view is also accepted by managers and trade unions. Less examined is gender.
Human activity or material life, not only structures but also sets limits on human understanding: what we do shapes and constrains what we know (Harding 1987:185)
In South Africa, most past research on affirmative action has focused on race. However, women in South Africa and internationally are also recipients of discrimination in the workplace. Like racial discrimination, gender discrimination is historic.
Distinct trends have occurred internationally regarding women in the workplace. Initially there was a disregard of women as workers. It was only out of "necessity" in World War 2 that they were encouraged to enter the workforce. Thereafter, they were urged to return to the home (Rappaport and Rappaport 1993). In the 1970ís, through the Contemporary Womenís Movement, women expressed their desire to re-enter the workplace. There were no concessions and provisions made for those issues perceived as womenís responsibilities such as child-care. Career women were therefore disadvantaged. Pressure from womenís movements resulted in discussions that the structures had to change. There were however, no tangible outcomes. It was only in the late 1980ís, when research revealed that these concerns were no longer female concerns alone, but that males expressed them as well, that some structures changed to address these needs. These took the form of child-care facilities, maternity leave and in some countries, paternity leave. However, the real structure and role stereotypes remained unchanged (Rappaport and Rappaport 1993). Today, society remains structured in ways, which favour men and disfavour women in the competitive race for goods with which our society rewards us: power, prestige and money (Tong 1989:29).
Ideally, society should acknowledge and consider the differences (biological, social or cultural) between men and women and then equalise the problem. Instead, there is often a disregard for women as active members of society. Further, men regard them as not fitting into the work place (Hersch 1993). The point is that women and men must be treated as equals, and this requires that women are not penalised for the ways in which they are different from menÖ (Hersch 1993:171). The above trends are also true for the media industry (Beasley 1989).
Although most women experience the general difficulties described above, they are not a homogenous group. Power relations among men and women, racial and ethnic groups, classes, women and men in rural and urban areas differ across cultures (Harding 1987; Mbilinyi 1992; Steeves 1989). This is particularly relevant in a multicultural society such as South Africa. Black women feel particularly alienated from the broader research agenda of the womenís movement. They feel that past research focused on the needs of white middle class women. Further, they feel that a broader analysis is needed which focuses on their experiences as black working class women, that is, as experiencing triple discrimination. This discrimination is related to them being women, black and workers (Alperson 1993b; Matabane 1989; Rhodes 1989). Harding (1987), while acknowledging that women share different experiences because of culture, race and class, argues that women can and should come together to form a resistance to fight oppression at the general level.
c) Evidence of Race and Gender as part of affirmative action
The interview discussions reflected the difference in definitions and beneficiaries.
With regard to definitions: The general understanding was that affirmative action is about providing opportunities for previously disadvantaged people. Managerial and editorial staff focused on individual empowerment and were thus more in keeping with the Ďmanagerialí viewpoint. Journalists however focused on collective empowerment (except for interviewee 19). They were thus more inclined to support the trade union definition of affirmative action.
Regarding beneficiaries: The interviewees had different perceptions of who qualifies for affirmative action. Generally, white and older males felt that it applied to race alone while females and younger males, both usually from disadvantaged communities, felt that it included both race and gender.
The question "What do you understand by affirmative action?" was put to all the interviewees. Some of the responses follow. The responses not only related to their understanding but also indicated the beneficiaries of affirmative action.
A young black female journalist (3) responded:
My understanding is that there have been people who have been disadvantaged. These include blacks, Indians, coloureds and women. They are disadvantaged by not being able to enter the job market equally to another group of people and to me affirmative action seems to address that issue by allowing fair chance to all.
An older coloured male and a union representative (2) stated:
Affirmative action for me is the redressing of that situation where people who were previously disadvantaged (blacks) are given the opportunity to develop Ö even if they do not have the highest qualification.
A white male editor (17) said:
A mechanism, to address the wrongs of the past, in as much as they impacted on people who werenít given the opportunity. My understanding is that people from previously disadvantaged backgroundsÖ (in terms of race Ö women are not seen as having the same priorityÖ ) will be given the same opportunity to reach higher status on the basis that should the candidate be of the same quality as a white candidate, that person will get the job. With a view to bring to our company, through all the steps of seniority, a balance which somewhat reflects the society we live in.
An Indian female manager (5) expressed:
Affirmative action is an opportunity for people, the less privileged from before, it doesnít necessarily mean that you are a black person, you could be anyone like a women, black, coloured, Malay, anyone from the disadvantaged sector who must now be given the opportunity and training to advance. You must take a person who shows a potential and develop them to work their way up; it doesnít just apply to managers or senior positions. Affirmative action doesnít mean that just because you are of the right skin colour you will get the job, it also doesnít mean kick a person out if they are doing a good job.
A black male manager (13) stated:
To me it is to affirm people who have been disadvantaged. We see it as being organised as priorities: 1. African women; 2. African Men; 3. Indian and coloured males and females. To a certain extent, white women but they would be the last priority.
These feelings were also found by Manhando (1994) who found that people regarded affirmative action as racially neutral and did not fully understand who should be benefiting and why. One such person was an Indian presenter and producer who stated (Manhando 1994:56):
My understanding is that people will have the ability to do certain tasks, who for some reason have not had the opportunity to do so, will be given the opportunity, making certain that not race or gender should come into question. We are talking about affirmative action, relating it to blacks and women in particular but this will create problems in the future. What about the white people, especially the young? Twenty years from now, we will need another policy to redress a policy that disadvantaged the minority. I cannot help but feel that we are going to live through this programme again, targeted at the white population.
A black male young journalist (19) who was different and related to individual, rather than a collective empowerment responded:
Affirmative action in most cases is linked to black empowerment, or so called black empowerment. And my theory in life is that there is no such thing as black empowerment. Thereís always self-empowerment.
A white male, working on the technical side, (10) whose job was threatened, offered a completely different view of affirmative action:
Affirmative action is a way to get cheap labour. They want to get rid of the qualified people, and bring in semi-trained people. I say get the person trained, give him the opportunity to learn and then compete fairly. Donít just get them into the company and donít train them. Uplift them to a point, help the person.
|All interviewees expressed the need for both affirmative action and a company policy document specifically addressing affirmative action. In keeping with international trends and academic theory, affirmative action was seen as both a way of overcoming past discrimination and a way of introducing policy aimed at promoting one group over another to achieve equality of employment. Hence, affirmative action cannot be racially neutral (Degenaar 1980; Innes 1993).
d) Disability and homosexuality as part of affirmative action
The Employment Equity Act states that affirmative action will apply to race, gender and disability. Homosexuals experience specific problems that need addressing. Discrimination against both homosexuals and the disabled receives little attention by business in South Africa.
I was fortunate to interview a male homosexual administrator (interviewee 6). While exploring the questions he remarked:
When people talk about gender, they always refer to male/female but you know gays also have very distinct problems. It seems as though you are focusing on the promotion of women and Iíd like it if you would include my experience as a gay person.
Although our initial aim was to focus on women, we do recognise the needs and rights of gay people and do feel it is important to address these as well, hence feel free to talk about your specific experience.
He went on to say:
They (the company) talk about equality, but thereís no gender equality and you talk about man and woman and not gay and lesbian Ö with your pension fund, provident fund, medical aid they donít have provision for your partner. I would put a man but I canít because heís not my husband. Our policy fund, pension funds donít give you the opportunity to make your boyfriend, your partner the right to claim your pension/provident fund, if you should die. I think they should actually include this by law. Just recently somebody fought the case where his partner died and the company just paid him a lump sum and not the provident fund. I didnít know that the constitution actually gave you that right until I read the article. But I think that the company should on black and white make provision for that as well, and the unions should fight for it..
Thus, it is possible that homosexual staff experience problems of not having their partners recognised and accorded the same rights as partners as partners of heterosexual staff.
I proceeded to ask interviewee 1 (white male editor) and 12 (black male senior journalist) about gay rights:
How are the rights of gays addressed by the company?
Interviewee 1 (white male editor) responded,
To be honest I donít know. I think itís not something that would come up because I think weíve got a tolerant environment. Certainly any kind of discrimination against gays would have to be stopped. They are treated like anybody else, I think. And certainly I have never heard a compliant. But I think if there were complaints we would take them seriously.
Interviewee 12 (black senior male journalist) responded:
There is a commitment not to discriminate against people based on race, gender, sexual orientation etc Ö sexual orientation is not a problem
Farhana asked interviewee 12:
Are you aware if homosexual partners are given the same recognition as heterosexual partners?
I am aware that the company feels the need to review certain issues and chapters in their policies. I do believe the administration has taken great strides to have a policy in place that serves the interest of its employees.
|Unfortunately this study failed to explore the experience of gays more profoundly and did not tackle the experience of the disabled at all. From these responses, one may wonder if homosexuals experience discrimination. Further, there is ignorance around the company's policies towards homosexuals.
5. The Need for Affirmative Actionas Seen by the Interviewees
Given that the government has passed legislation to which companies and responding , and that we know what constitutes affirmative action and who
should benefit, the next question asked was whether staff felt that affirmative action was necessary. Most interviewees replied "definitely". Some interviewees expanded on this belief.
A white male technician (10) expanded:
Yes, everybody needs an opportunity. But I mean at the end of the day, you must pick the best person applying for the job, irrespective of his colour because your company can only benefit if the company benefits, the worker benefits.
A young black female journalist (3) responded:
Definitely without a doubt there is. For instance when I look at myself, I donít think that I would have had this job 10 years ago, but I do now and I am allowed to compete Ö at least I have a fair chance at competing. So most definitely there is a need for it.
A coloured female administrator and union representative (4) responded:
I think so, Ö right now affirmative action is keeping them (the company) under control and not putting 90% of the whites in positions again.
The idea that careful implementation of affirmative action is necessary was expressed by an Indian female manager (5) who responded:
I think to a degree there is a need for affirmative action, but it must be implemented properly. I donít believe its been implemented properly. Thereís no use putting someone in a position that they canít do .. you are setting them to fail. I think you have to start training people to fill positions. And why you have to always take people from outside and put them in top positions when you can actually develop people from the bottom and work them to the top, within the company.
In general, people of colour and women are considered to be beneficiaries. There was also a belief that affirmative action is necessary.