Don’t Blame Policy Failures On Affirmative Action

Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader Pieter Groenewald has intensified his attack on affirmative action, blaming the policy for all things that went wrong in South Africa in the past 25 years.

In his latest take, Groenewald demanded that South Africa should ban affirmative action because the policy has only brought about nepotism, incompetence and general paralysis in the public sector.

This has become a standard criticism against affirmative action in South Africa and elsewhere. Affirmative Action is a divisive policy and it is hardly credited for any progress in society.

The disappointing part of the debate about affirmative action in South Africa is that it is based on myths that pass for facts.

Groenewald’s criticism of affirmative action is also rich with policy myths that are sold as rigorous contribution to public policy.

I want to deal with two myths that comes out from Groenewald’s position on affirmative action.

The first myth is the idea that South Africa can simply ban affirmative action and do away with the practise.

Behind this thinking is the belief that government has a choice to do the right thing and do away with affirmative action.

This is not true in the sense that affirmative action in South Africa is provided for as part and parcel of the right to equality. Government has no choice to decide to abandon affirmative action because the Constitution provides for affirmative action under the equality clause.

Therefore, the only way in which South Africa can ban affirmative action is to amend the Constitution, particularly the part of equality clause that allows for affirmative action measures to be taken to bring about equality for some.

It is disingenuous to create the impression that government has a discretion to ban affirmative action. Conversely, as the Constitution stands, government has a positive obligation to implement affirmative action where necessary.

Therefore, affirmative action in South Africa is a constitutional prerogative which cannot be easily done away with without an amendment. However, there is no prescription on how affirmative action policies must be designed.

This brings me to the second Groenewald myth: the idea that affirmative action is responsible for all policy failures and corruption we have seen in the public service.

This myth is the most disturbing one because it has an element of truth in it.

The concern is that the truth is stretched to delegitimise intervention policies such as affirmative action. We all agree that there have been serious policy lapses in the public sector in South Africa, resulting in nepotism and corruption.

The problem is that when general policy failure happens, it is unjustifiable to conclude that the general policy failures are caused by affirmative action.

Take for example how our government have had challenges in implementing the general policy, be it economic policy or the non-existent rural economic development policy.

If government has a problem implementing policies, it is highly unlikely that the same government will excel in implementing affirmative action policy. Compared to other general policies, an effective affirmative action programme would be technically demanding to design, implement, and monitor.

It is strange to say that government has failed in implementing affirmative action and therefore the policy should be banned.

The correct statement would be to say that government has failed in its implementation of general policy including affirmative action. The response should be to strengthen government capacity to be able to design and implement complex policies such as affirmative action.

Indeed, concerns must be raised at government’s often poorly designed affirmative action programmes, whose implementation result in the challenges that Groenewald identify.

However, with renewed government capacity and a healthy policy dialogue, South Africa can design affirmative action programmes that are constitutionally defensible and rigorous in terms of substance.

  • Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn

OPINION: Dr Ralph Mathekga