It would seem that life in South Africa today is akin to the same level of polarisation that existed post 9/11 when George W Bush stated, “You are either with us, or against us”.These days you are either 'Pro-Affirmative Action' or a 'racist'.
Just because I found a black company unsuitably qualified to tender for projects does not make me a 'racist'! And,
Just because you are a young black entrepreneur does not entitle you to 'contracts'!
I write today in utter frustration because I was accused of being a racist and not because I had said or done something that could have been racist, but purely because I had the nerve to find a company technically incompetent to undertake contracts for my company. I was assessing the resources of a potential contractor and when the owner could clearly see where this was going, he openly asked me,
“Why do you only approve White and Indian companies? How many black companies have you approved?”
I must be honest, the boldness of his questions took me quite by surprise and I answered him. I then remembered that I was the one doing the assessing here and not the other way around but it was too late. I had opened the door. What followed was not pretty. I defended myself. Gave him stats. Tried to elaborate on my struggle credentials (doesn't everybody have them these days?). Explained my involvement with the welfare of African children in Durban. Here comes the shameful part. I actually considered giving him the approval he required to prove to him (and perhaps myself) that I was not really a racist.
Luckily sanity prevailed and my shame turned to anger. I was not here to do a BEE scorecard. I was here to perform a technical accreditation of a potential contractor. I was interested on whether the company had suitably trained staff to operate the heavy machinery required, not what their directorship looked like. I was accompanied by another black engineer to undertake this assessment and he concurred with me that this guy was incompetent for the task at hand and extremely unprofessional in his behaviour. Why so frustrated then, you may ask? He failed the assessment, right?
Because of the insinuation that I failed this company because I am racist and have a personal vendetta against him, senior management have asked me to explain my findings and ensure that I was indeed being fair. That was frustrating for me and sad. That regardless of all my ideals and naïve belief in our country that all it took was the accusation that I am racist, for my integrity to be second guessed.
I understand the need for affirmative action. I would be a lot more comfortable with it if it had a shelf life because one has to agree that if it continues indefinitely then it would in essence itself be a form of racism. I benefitted greatly from affirmative action. Bursary for my undergraduate degree (although I would like to think that my school record helped), Scholarship for my Masters Degree which was called the Black Masters Programme (you have to remember that these were the days before Jimmy Manyi and his ilk) and a great job that I love. Ultimately I believe that managers still choose the best person for the job regardless of colour. That is not my aforementioned naivety speaking, but logic. Most managers are responsible for a departmental output. Although affirmative action may form part of your job compact, the major contributor would always be departmental output. An appointment based purely on affirmative action (i.e. the candidate is not suitable qualified for the job) would have three consequences:
> That the manager will have to undertake the extra work (unlikely)
> That existing staff will have to work harder to maintain the output (very likely)
> That departmental output will decrease resulting in decreased levels of service delivery.
When young non-black staff are demotivated or upset when they are passed up for promotions or training opportunities, I believe that that does not make them racists. It just makes them human. These are the guys that studied with their black peers at the same institutions. The people who benefited from Apartheid are by now deep into senior management and it is actually affirmative action itself that is ironically holding back the development and upward mobility of young black staff. These senior managers, now thanks to affirmative action, have nowhere to go hence they remain in their position. The only way to bypass them would be to duplicate the position or split the workload but both these options make little sense in the corporate world as it would imply double the operating cost for the same output. Regardless what any company writes in it's mission statement about socio economic responsibility blah blah blah, at the end of the day they are in business to make money. Sad but true.
I believe that another thing that needs to be looked at, is the awarding of bursaries. Most companies look at bursaries as a means of solving their future affirmative action targets. They thereby give their bursaries primarily to black students. This is sensible and should actually be encouraged however, somebody needs to be looking out for the interest of non black students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may be extremely intelligent and in need financial assistance to be able to pursue a career in their chosen field. It would be terrible for the country if people with the aptitude and attitude to complete their undergraduate degree in Engineering, Medicine etc. end up not studying due to financial constraints. I believe that this support should come from private donors or civil society. I am not suggesting that private donors only consider awarding bursaries to non-blacks but rather that these private scholarships be awarded on merit only i.e. those candidates that have a financial need and the smarts to pursue a professional career, regardless of race.
I believe that the wrongs of the past have not yet been cleared and that 'affirmative action -like' policies are still needed but as it stands, it has failed the majority of the previously disadvantaged. There is no difference between a White Capitalist and a Black Capitalist. Government need to now review these policies to determine how best to address the inequalities of the past (target job creation and poverty) but at the same time plan for a future that is more identifiable with the 'free and fair democratic rainbow nation' image that we portray to the world.