Solidarity says it's time to talk affirmative action and race

Posted 19 May 2013 Written by Ciaran Ryan
Category Labour

Trade union Solidarity says it’s time to talk about affirmative action and come up with new ideas for redressing the racial imbalances bequeathed by apartheid.

It says the government’s affirmative action programme has failed, and new ideas are needed.

It recently launched its “Stop Race-firmation Action” campaign using the internet, social media and SMS’s because it wants to stimulate debate around the subject. Affirmative action is “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, but (also) detrimental to all South Africans,” according to Dirk Hermann, deputy general secretary of Solidarity.

The campaign is being flanked by a Labour Court action against the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). Solidarity has brought its action on behalf of 10 of its members, all senior staffers in the Western Cape DCS, arguing that they were overlooked for promotion on the grounds that they have the wrong skin colour.

It’s shaping up to be in interesting case. The DCS is applying national racial quotas in the Western Cape, where coloureds make up 53% of the population. At a national level, coloureds make up 8,8% of the population, and this is the crux of the issue.

The case was postponed earlier this month on condition that the DCS posts applied for by the applicants, and that had not been filled, remain vacant. The trial will resume on 29 July this year.

“The DCS court case illustrated to us the absurd consequences of an affirmative action programme based solely on race,” says Hermann. “If the government’s plan is implemented to the last detail in the Western Cape it will mean that there are approximately one million coloured South Africans too many, since they constitute about 53% of the population in the Western Cape but are nationally less than 10% of the population. That would mean that in the Western Cape coloured South Africans should literally be down managed from 53% to 10%, merely because a calculator determined the statistics. The only way to achieve that is by means of a huge social manipulation programme and forced removals. The government’s approach has developed into a mathematical approach replacing people with numbers. This has nothing to do with affirmation and everything to do with race.”

According to Hermann, South Africans, especially large businesses, too readily accept that the government’s way is the only way. “What we in South Africa need is a proper battle to find ideas. We appeal to academics, trade unionists, church and community leaders, and especially large employers in the business world to be critical about the government’s affirmative action programme and to seek viable alternatives.”

Hermann says government’s idea of racial representation simply does not work. “They do not want to acknowledge that; they would rather implement an unfeasible idea more aggressively through stricter legislation.

“The answer does not lie in stricter racial quotas but in a better education system so that people can be empowered to participate in the economy themselves. Not enough skills are available to achieve the government’s targets. The government’s failed education system means that the government, not racist employers, is largely to blame for the failure of affirmative action.”

The DCS says Solidarity is not recognised by the Department as it does not meet the threshold for recognition as defined by the General Public Service Sectoral Bargaining Council (GPSSBC) constitution.

The trade union has been accused of stoking racial tensions between blacks and coloureds, but has rejected these assertions on the grounds that government’s position on affirmative action is not working and is inimical to government’s proclaimed vision of prosperity for all South Africans. Further court cases challenging the government’s approach to affirmative action are planned for later in the year.

Several court actions planned

This is the latest in a series of affirmative action cases brought by Solidarity against the government. Three years ago, it brought an action on behalf of Herman Denysschen who had applied for a promotion post in the logistical department of Correctional Services. His application was rejected on the basis of affirmative action, even though an interview panel, which was 75% black, had recommended him for the post. The advertisement for the post had stated clearly that anyone, regardless of race, could apply.

The human resources division of Correctional Services had indicated that appointments from the non-designated group were permitted in the case of logistical posts owing to the skills shortage and the large number of vacancies. However, Correctional Services decided to leave the post vacant instead of appointing a white male. It later reversed this decision and appointed Denysschen to the post before the matter came to trial.

Solidarity says its approach to affirmative action conforms both with the Constitution and trends in international law.

The trade union has stepped up its campaign against affirmative action, and this week levelled its criticism at the latest Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) report. It argues that the flawed CEE report is attempting to achieve racial quotas across every occupational level, when this is both impractical and counter-productive.

Paul Joubert, senior economics researcher at the Solidarity Research Institute (SRI), says this report repeats similar errors and misrepresentations that have been pointed out to it in the past.

“The commission’s main focus is once again on the racial composition of the top and senior management levels, although these levels comprise less than 2,8% of the employees covered in the report,” says Joubert. “The commission focuses on this small section of the labour market, while failing to offer a solution for South Africa’s estimated 7 million unemployed people. In the commission’s report, 72,406 white men are over-represented at the top and senior management levels. Even if all these positions could be transferred to the designated group overnight, it would not have a significant impact on the number of unemployed people.”

Joubert says the commission again makes no mention of the differences in educational attainment among the various population groups. This factor is one of the most important reasons why all job levels do not reflect the racial composition of the economically active population. “According to the 2011 census, approximately 40% of white adults have a qualification above matric, while less than 10% of black adults have a tertiary qualification. Less than 20% of white adults do not have matric, while more than 60% of black adults do not have matric. This educational gap cannot be wished or argued away, however. It is the reality and can only be rectified through improved education.”

The commission’s incorrect interpretation of its figures regarding appointments and promotions is another notable error that is repeated in this year’s report, adds Joubert. “The commission says, for example, that 43,8% of employees at senior management level are white men and that 42,6% of the appointments and 32,1% of the promotions on the same level are also white men. The commission then compares the figures with white men’s representation in the EAP (Economically Active Population) and comes to the conclusion that these figures suggest that white men will continue to dominate at senior management level. In reality, the figures indicate that white men’s position at senior management level and indeed at all levels is diminishing gradually.”

The full statement on the "Race-firmation" campaign is available at

In summary, it reads:
  1. "That the state’s approach to affirmative action requires national demographics to be applied absolutely at all levels at every workplace in South Africa.
  2. That this approach results in racial figures becoming more important than service delivery.
  3. That the majority of South Africans become victims of poor service delivery in safety, health services, education and other areas.
  4. That absolute ceilings are placed above minorities and that their right to dignity and equality is affected, resulting in alienation from the political system.
  5. That this approach leaves no room for diversity in South Africa and that it will lead to homogeneity.
  6. That people will become dependent on the system for promotions, that accountability will disappear and that a culture of entitlement will develop.
  7. That due to poor service delivery and contracting skills through consultants, the cost of affirmative action will be borne by ordinary taxpayers.
  8. That the system will develop into a system of favouritism for loyalists to the party."

It further states:

"We support an approach:
  1. Where human capital is created so that individuals may seize the opportunities presented by the economy.
  2. Where inputs, namely education and development, are more important than mere racial outputs.
  3. Where people do not become dependent on the system but freed from the system.
  4. Where good health, security, education, social, municipal and other services to the masses are considered to be the most effective form of service delivery and are more important than favouring individuals.
  5. Where the dignity and equality of all are taken into account and the alienation of minorities is prevented.
  6. Where people may practice their occupations and pursue their careers where they live and are not forced to relocate.
  7. Where the diversity and language of the community served by government institutions are taken into account when people are appointed.
  8. Where race is replaced with a socio-economic approach."

Relevant legislation:
Labour Relations Act
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa
Employment Equity Act

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Acts Online. Acts Online accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness or fairness of the article, nor does the information contained herein constitute advice, legal or otherwise.