The Democratic Alliance takes aim at demographic representivity, again

Jimmy Manyi’s comments about coloureds and Indians have, for many reasons, been the stuff dreams are made of for the Democratic Alliance. The most interesting of these reasons is that the comments have given the DA a chance to finally have a proper go at taking down demographic representivity, something which I believe the party’s strategists have identified as one of the biggest impediments to defeating the ANC come election time. Yes, yes. Believe if you will that the DA is deeply concerned by, as Helen Zille put it, South Africa’s “threadbare social fabric” and wants to champion the fight against divisive racial politics, but the truth is that at the heart of the party putting Manyi in its crosshairs (this time) is a desire to rule.

Manyi’s obtuse remarks have (with the DA handing out the markers and pointing to the spot) drawn question marks around the thinking behind the proposed amendment to the Employment Equity Act. Trevor Manuel said it in his open letter to Manyi: “As a consequence of your behaviour, people like me – in the ANC and in government – are being asked to explain what was in the mind of the drafters of the amendments to the Employment Equity Act.” Even the Presidency issued a statement defending the act and the proposed amendments. But I suspect that the DA will push for more to be explained and changed, not just the proposed amendment. It will push hard on section 42(a)(i) of the act, which speaks to the demographic profile measure.

In a nutshell, the section sets out one of the standards to which designated employers are assessed for compliance with the Employment Equity Act. It says (for now) that the demographic profile of the national and regional economically active population must be taken into account to determine whether an employer’s complying with the act. By some folk’s crude reading, an employer’s staff complement should racially represent the population of the country/region.

This section was included in the act as an attempt at directly redressing the economic imbalances caused by apartheid. It was, as Pierre de Vos put it, part of the efforts to dismantle the system of racial hierarchy and race-thinking, without which it would have taken a much longer time to begin to address the economic effects of apartheid. The DA, however, has taken offence to this section in particular because it believes that this is how the ANC has maintained its stranglehold on the black vote. Nevermind all the other reasons it sites; this is what has made the section so unpalatable for the DA. The party has often resurrected the spectre of Hendrik Verwoerd to say that the ANC uses the apartheid-style tactics in promising roughly 79% of the pie to blacks, 9% to coloureds, 9% to whites and 2% to Indians/Asians. It accuses the ANC of social engineering and draws comparisons to Nazi rhetoric because it believes that the ANC has bought the loyalty of a huge chunk of the population by promising them the first and largest helping.

And you know what? The DA may have somewhat of a point there, even if their message gets lost in all the political posturing.

At the time of drafting the legislation, looking at demographic profile of the country was probably the most convenient and immediate measure of disadvantage under apartheid. If you were part of the non-white group under apartheid, you very likely were the most disadvantaged so any corrective measures implemented should focus on advancing you. But as time passes, the reliability and robustness of this measure becomes less apparent and leaves questions unanswered, such as at what point do we say that corrective measures are complete? And why does it seem like only a small sector of the designated group has actually benefitted from the corrective measures? And what does this do for racial healing?

As time passes, it becomes clear that race alone, while convenient and immediate, is a tricky measure to use in a policy of affirmative action, especially because it seems to perpetuate thinking along racial lines. At some point, maybe now, maybe very soon, measures more robust and immune-to-challenge will need to be put in place before we forget why we even had affirmative action in the first place. A good start in finding what these other measures should be may come from asking what apartheid did (economically) to the disadvantaged in addition to asking who the disadvantaged were. For non-whites, apartheid took away asset ownership rights, access to education, opportunities to earn and accumulate wealth, and other economically enabling opportunities. Pierre de Vos suggests considering: “the social and economic status of the individual and his or her parents; whether an individual is part of a first generation who has obtained secondary or tertiary education; whether an individual grew up in a rural area or in the city; whether the individual is monolingual or speaks several South African languages.”

Questions of practicability remain (maybe using the Income Tax Act to gather information on economic standing might help?), but all of these are a great start nonetheless. Now more voices are needed to contribute to the discussion. As for the DA, I have my doubts about whether this will unlock the black vote, but give it a go chaps.

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