South Africa was built on apartheid. For generations prior to 1994, blacks and whites were separated, with the whites essentially exploiting the powerless blacks for immense wealth and power. Blacks, who make up around 77% of the population of 45 million, were denied citizenship, subjected to legalized oppression and limited to menial, labor-intensive jobs. “Coloreds,” or people of mixed race, and Indians were placed socially above the blacks, but still considered inferior to the whites that comprised only 10% of the population.
Today, less than 20 years later, despite a Nelson Mandela-led transition into equality that went far smoother than could have been expected, race-related tension is still prominent. One of the areas in which this is most noticeable is in the jobs sector, with whites often complaining that the affirmative action measures in place tip the scales far too much against them.
Since the Employment Equity Act that was introduced in 1998, companies with 50 employees or more are required to provide equal opportunity for people that were previous disadvantaged on the grounds of race. While it applies to all sectors, enforcement officials have given extra attention to the banking, mining and insurance industries, which were historically dominated by whites.
This is a very touchy subject. Because while one can logically argue that by limiting promotional opportunities for whites—you run the risk of brain drain and losing competitiveness on a global scale, not on the basis of race but on education and experience, non-whites were also legally prevented from attaining education and experience to develop managerial skills.
But if you look at the numbers, surveys have shown that blacks currently hold around 30% of professional management positions in the country—still a far lower ratio than their demographic representation. It is also evident that the representation of blacks at the highest levels of management is still more than 80% lower than in “unskilled and defined decision-making” positions.
This debate has gone beyond the traditional job markets, even into decisions about rosters on the nation’s athletic teams. It was a huge scandal in 2002 when president of the country’s cricket board ordered the replacement of a white player with one of mixed race. The country is passionate about cricket, and whites complained that their 100 years of experience in the sport warranted inclusion on the national team. Blacks, however, argued that they were essentially banned from the sport for those 100 years, and thus were more than deserving of opportunities to reach a level playing field now.
Given the actual numbers mentioned above, it is hard to really give credibility to the white argument that they are suffering and battling the odds. They are simply having to work harder for things that were handed to them before, and I sincerely hope that rather than spark racial tensions on micro levels, it will lead to finally a truly equal society on the macro level. For a country that prides itself on being the “Rainbow Nation”, this is not only desirable, but essential.