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On the Affirmative Action "Debate" at UCT

21 May 2007 - 12:00

By Dr Elisa Galgut

Having read the responses to Prof David Benatar's arguments against race-based affirmative action (AA) policies, I would like to comment, not on the arguments themselves, but on the responses he has received within the UCT community.

As a general rule, the substantial points put forward by Prof Benatar have, by and large, been ignored. I'd like to mention just a few of these responses: Judy Favish, in her letter to The Monday Paper (May 2-20) wrote that she was "struck by the apparent ease with which he was able to dismiss the effects of apartheid on the lives of black people in South Africa."

To my mind, nowhere does Prof Benatar say or imply this; on the contrary, it is precisely because of the devastating effects of the apartheid educational system that Prof Benatar argues that AA policies in the hiring of academics are unlikely to redress the great wrongs suffered by the majority of people in this country.

Dr Adam Haupt claimed that Prof Benatar's arguments "strip subjects of a vocabulary that allows them to articulate their continuing experiences". It is one thing for people to self-identify in categories of their own choosing, and quite another for such categories to play a meaningful role in the redressing of injustice.

Dr Haupt has not shown how the former impacts on the latter, especially with regard to AA policies. And finally I'd like to address some of the claims made by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. I'll refrain from too much comment on the factual inaccuracies and tone of her letter, which struck me as ad hominem and uncharitable (and strangely so, especially given Prof Gobodo-Madikizela's willingness to extend the hand of empathy even towards apartheid murderers).

Prof Gobodo-Madikizela stated that she was "troubled" by the focus of Prof Benatar's talk on race, and by the lack of discussion on issues of gender; this seems to me a non-starter. AA issues are complex, and teasing out the various strands of arguments may necessitate distinguishing AA race-based policies from others. As mentioned above in response to Dr Adam Haupt, it may certainly be necessary that debates about identity take place as "they touch our deepest and most hidden fears about what it means to be white at UCT, and what it means to be black."

Prof Benatar would be the last person to suggest that such debates should not be happening. But again - showing how debates about identity are relevant for AA policies is not obvious, and none of the respondents to Prof Benatar has clarified the issues. Merely stating that something is important is vastly different from showing how it is important. It is this absence of reasoned argument in the majority of responses to the AA debate that I find deeply troubling, especially in the context of a university. The general tenor of most of the criticisms made against Prof Benatar's arguments seems characterized by an ad hominem tone, and responses range from veiled accusations of racism, unargued for claims, wilful misreadings, attacks on the very uses of logic(!), and so on. I understand that the AA issue is a sensitive one, and no doubt opponents of Prof Benatar would say that he should be aware of such sensitivities. But a culture of respect also means that respondents in such discussions be equally sensitive to the arguments, and they should likewise be aware of their own possible mis-readings of emotionally charged issues. The principle of charity extends both ways.