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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Affirmative action policies, euphemistically referred to as broad-based black economic empowerment in the SA context, have proved inherently counterproductive everywhere in the world. 

This should no longer be an issue for debate. The empirical evidence is irrefutable. Affirmative action stokes racial tensions and fosters a mindset of victimhood among the identified beneficiary group.

This racially preferential (therefore discriminatory) policy should be totally and completely abrogated wherever it occurs in the world, especially in SA and the US.

The mere fact that explicitly racial policies target special sectors of the population for preferential treatment means those who are excluded are discriminated against.

In SA there is a sense of déjà vu because affirmative action policies carry echoes of the abhorrent apartheid system that was dismantled after 1994. Yet despite all the demonstrable facts, policymakers and their acolytes persistently display an uncanny ability to ignore the evidence.

Affirmative action has clear negative consequences. Studying the example of the US is instructive, as it presents a case where affirmative action policies were aggressively pursued over a long period. They were first implemented by president Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and later defined primarily as a race-orientated policy from 1969. Thus the primary target group, African-Americans, has been a beneficiary of these policies for more than 50 years.

So what are the results? The case against affirmative action is irrefutably presented in the following statistics, derived from the US census bureau’s average annual household incomes 2017 report: Asian $81,942, white (not Hispanic) $64,444, Hispanic $47,638, black $39,407.

In a report published by the Peter G Petersen Foundation in November 2022, “Income & Wealth in the US”, the following statistics are consistent with the US census bureau data: Asian $101,418, white (not Hispanic) $78,912, Hispanic (any race) $58,015, black $48,175.

These statistics illustrate the glaring disparities in average household income among the ethnic groups that constitute the US nation. It is most glaringly evident that blacks stubbornly occupy the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, despite decades of affirmative action.

I first got involved in a serious discussion on affirmative action in the bantustan Bophuthatswana in 1986, eight years before the demise of apartheid. I was asked by an American lecturer based at the university in Mmabatho whether I had a view on the subject.

I said that to me affirmative action seemed akin to apartheid and was thus morally egregious. I felt that if and when it were to be enacted as official government policy, rent-seekers and other opportunists — especially those connected with government — would capture the affirmative action agenda and government would never be able to deviate from it, even if it wanted to.

In this scenario the proponents of affirmative action would be able to count on the support of a few guilt-ridden whites and others who would seek to be rewarded for helping the rent-seekers dip their hands into the cookie jar.

Looking at the current situation in SA I feel I have been vindicated. As affirmative action was proposed and crystallised to become law I warned that it would soon come to be implemented in terms of shades of colour — the darker-skinned, the more favoured. And so it has come to pass.

It is noteworthy that in the US state of California abolished affirmative action and any vestiges of it in 1995. Ah, the beauty of federal and vertical devolution of power.

Moral hazard

The implementation of affirmative action policies gives rise to the moral hazard of the perpetuation of victimhood among the targeted group. This can render them vassals of a paternalistic nanny state, on which they become perpetually dependent.

Those in government who are purveyors of affirmative action policies are incentivised to reinforce the sense of victimhood among the beneficiaries as this assures them of loyal voters. So the whole scenario becomes a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.

In the process the entrepreneurial spirit of the targeted beneficiaries is blunted. This explains the recurring lower than average socioeconomic status of blacks in the US despite years of affirmative action.

A sinister situation prevails in SA with affirmative action and broad-based BEE in practice. By means of its broad-based BEE equity plan the government has made it mandatory for businesses to be complicit in the dirty work of classifying their workforces according to racial criteria, ostensibly to “rectify” the status quo and conform with the racial demographic.

How many whites, how many blacks, how many coloureds, how many Indians? Yet we know there is no clarity with regard to the precise characteristics that define the different racial categories. So why does the government get away with it, punishing today’s generation for the sins of their ancestors? Two wrongs do not make a right.

“It is self-destructive for any society to create a situation where a baby who is born into the world today automatically has pre-existing grievances against another baby born at the same time, because of what their ancestors did centuries ago. It is hard enough to solve our own problems, without trying to solve our ancestors’ problems,” says Prof Thomas Sowell, US economist, social theorist and author of more than 30 books. A black man.

SA’s pernicious and morally egregious broad-based BEE experiment in social engineering should be cast into the dustbin of history. Despite the negative consequences that are already evident as a result of these policies in SA, there is no shortage of apologists, including black rent-seekers and a variety of opportunistic individuals of all races. 

I should mention here those guilt-ridden whites who unashamedly condone these disastrous policies while patronising blacks who have leapt aboard the affirmative action gravy train and insulting those who have risen through the ranks and built their own businesses from the ground up.   

Confronted with the reality of statist and intrusive government, renowned economist the late Prof Walter E Williams has left us with a poignant reminder: “Government is about coercion. Limiting government is the single most important instrument for guaranteeing liberty.”

• Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation and vice-president of the SA Institute of Race Relations. He writes in his personal capacity.

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