More than 25 years into democracy, South Africa is witnessing a resurgence of opposition to affirmative action, particularly regarding its black economic empowerment policies. The Democratic Alliance, in its recently adopted economic justice policy, calls for the abolition of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). Action SA has said “It [B-BBEE] must be put in its rightful place in the rubbish dump of our history”. The leader of One SA Movement, Mmusi Maimane has unveiled a plan for a R1 200 basic income grant for the poor; the source of funding will be large companies and thus negate B-BBEE. Solidarity and AfriForum have mounted legal challenges against affirmative action measures by the department of tourism that they consider “racist”. 

The ruling party on the other hand, in its latest lekgotla has resolved to convene an economic summit to assess the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and stated: “This summit needs to focus renewed attention on B-BBEE, the transformation of ownership, management and control patterns in the economy, and the promotion of black and women entrepreneurs and industrialists.” 

In light of our history and current systemic challenges, black-owned businesses, which have always struggled to access finance and markets, are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and especially those industries that were beginning to make headway, such as hospitality, have been hit the hardest.

In making sense of these developments, it’s important to first clarify that affirmative action as a concept is not restricted to giving preference in employment to previously discriminated groups, but includes a variety of laws and policies regulating the awarding of tenders and contracts; financing; business ownership; management; admissions to educational institutions and sports. Affirmative action is also not limited to race but includes gender and persons with disabilities. For the purposes of this article the focus is on race. 

The renowned contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel, in a 1981 testimony entitled “A Defence of Affirmative Action”, made a strong argument for affirmative action based on social justice for black people in the American context. They had been through slavery and segregation, oppressed and super-exploited, and this legacy continues to be reflected in their socioeconomic conditions. The ANC has historically, and at present, defined the purpose of the struggle for freedom as the “liberation of black people in general and Africans in particular”. There is nothing mysterious about this: it is based on the objective conditions of the hierarchical nature of colonial and apartheid oppression that placed Africans at the bottom of the social ladder.

The difficulty with affirmative action lies at the level of those who are passed over because of their belonging to a racial group, whose feelings of unfair treatment cannot be simply dismissed as lack of love for one’s country. How do black South Africans convince the white community that its interests are interconnected to theirs? The strongest objection to affirmative action according to Nagel is the one based on unfairness, wherein preferential treatment is in conflict with judging people on the basis of their individual characteristics. Who does not value Martin Luther’s wisdom, not to judge people by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character?

Nagel’s view is that defending affirmative action must go beyond compensatory justice, given the complications of unintended beneficiaries and victims. For him, what is paramount is the social goal of addressing racialised social and economic inequalities, divisions and the building of social cohesion. Action must be focused on improving the socioeconomic conditions of the most oppressed. In the American context, he acknowledges the positive effects of affirmative action in growing the black middle-class, but cautions that equally important is the need to simultaneously and decisively deal with the challenges of poverty and unskilled black people through appropriate economic policy, which is also true for South Africa today.

The notion that affirmative action can be replaced by education and training, jobs and a social safety net for the poor creates a false dilemma. Affirmative action in the main deals with the matter of qualified black people, including professionals and capitalists (real and aspirant), who in the past were discriminated against on the basis of race. Economic policy, on the other hand, must deal with the issues of poverty and unemployment that affect tens of millions of black people who lack education and jobs. Nagel thinks that the trickle-down to change rather than real transformation, which is simple equality of opportunity, would require that the nation waits a “few hundred years while things gradually get better”. The idea of a basic income grant is gaining traction globally and domestically, catapulted by the social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic. The growing support does not only come from egalitarians but also liberal quarters, albeit for different reasons, with the former primarily motivated by respect for human dignity and the latter by the choice that beneficiaries will have in using the money, as against the government deciding what’s best for the poor.

Opponents of B-BBEE cite the following reasons: it’s inconsistent with non-racialism; it’s racial discrimination; it gets hijacked by black elites and, to make things worse, it engenders corruption. In response it’s important to understand that affirmative action measures are aimed at advancing equality as an important step towards realising the ideal of non-racialism, which therefore speaks to the temporary nature of such measures and therefore should be time-bound. Businesses all over the world are owned by elites (shareholders) and supported by their professionals. Black economic empowerment is not immune to this reality and this is not meant to downplay efforts that are being made to expand, through various schemes, benefits to workers and relevant communities. Certainly, affirmative action motivated on the grounds of fair discrimination cannot be equated to racial discrimination that has its foundation in the false belief of the inferiority of the “other”. Corruption is a societal problem that cuts across all sectors and must be dealt with decisively, not only by relying on law enforcement agencies, but active citizenry and social change.

Overall, the South African public service has undergone major transformation — at least numbers are really no longer a problem — but it faces an organisational, cultural challenge, which is a subject for another day. A review of the effect of transformation in the public service might be useful and could lead to relaxation of affirmative action measures in most sections of the public service. In contrast, the private sector is lagging far behind, with government proposing amendments to the employment equity act to speed up transformation in corporate South Africa, in particular middle management and directorships. According to the B-BBEE commission 2019 Status and Trends Report, black ownership of JSE-listed companies leaves a lot to be desired, with only 2% of entities reporting 100% black ownership. Board representation of JSE-listed companies has a 61.6% majority for white South Africans and foreign nationals, and just 38% black. The commission also highlights fronting and tokenism as some of the key challenges impeding meaningful transformation.

At present, there is a growing embrace of the concept of diversity in the private sector, globally and domestically. Diversity as a goal to be achieved through various measures has become a more palatable reason for affirmative action than compensatory justice, which tends to invite controversy and causes divisions. There is also a useful, positive link that has been established by  advocates of transformation in business, between diversity and performance. The problem of an unconducive corporate culture which expects assimilation, that some have referred to as white-male dominated, has its roots in the history of corporate South Africa, and requires attention.

It is more than 55 years since the United States enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which led to the end of segregation in public spaces and the banning of employment discrimination. Nevertheless, American society continues to be plagued by systemic racism — this is why newly elected President Joe Biden has made racial justice one of the principal tasks of his administration. He has led by example in embracing diversity in the selection of his cabinet, stating that it “looks like America”. 

Affirmative action is a difficult conversation but it must be held in order to forge some shared understanding and buy-in for its effective implementation. The less effective it is, the longer it will be needed. But I concur with Nagel that the end of statutory discrimination and simple equality of opportunity will fail to address the reality of racialised socioeconomic inequalities, with adverse consequences for social cohesion and nation building.


  • Siyabulela Tsengiwe is the former chief commissioner of the International Trade Administration Commission of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity


Siyabulela Tsengiwe

Siyabulela Tsengiwe is the former chief commissioner of the International Trade Administration Commission of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity

Leave a comment