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On Race-Based Affirmative Action

21 May 2007 - 12:15

By Lebogang Hoveka

I have followed closely the debate by Prof. Benatar on "race-based" Affirmative Action at UCT. Firstly, I have been disappointed by the insensitive manner the proponents (from both sides) have chosen to debate the matter. Secondly, I agree with Dr. Haupt[1] that the lack of participation in the debate by Black Staff members at UCT is disappointing. It would have been interesting to hear the views from the likes of Prof. Nhlapo and Prof. Ndebele- not because they posses better logic- but because Prof. Hall asserts that part of the reason they were appointed was to bring "diversity" of culture and thought to UCT.

Let me concentrate on the first problem. There has been a discerning aura of jubilation amongst white staff and students at UCT, who have found a hero in Prof. Benatar for telling the "truth" about what has been brewing and festering for so long behind what Dr Radihlalo calls their "plastic smiles"[2]. The truth is that while there are many who want to use Prof. Benatar's arguments as validation for their racial prejudice that black people are inherently lazy and that blacks need a helping hand to succeed; Benatar cannot be accused of the same. I suspect that this is because many have misinterpreted his argument. His confrontational style of debate has also led those who dissent to his views to label him a racist. As a former student of his, I have experienced how without deviation, he has piously treated white and black students equally. Perhaps behind that "plastic smile" and "pseudo" care of his, he has been malevolently harbouring his racist thoughts, posturing them as debates about equality and quality rather than race; I doubt it!

If my reading his argument correct, his is a concern about race being used as a yard stick for "quality" rather than quality itself. Unlike the Democratic Alliance Students Organisation at UCT, his argument is not about 'Blacks taking the places of more deserving whites'. Surely he recognises that most black people have been severely disadvantaged by apartheid, in the same way that women and the disabled have been disadvantaged by mere "accidents" of nature. Again, if my reading of his argument is correct, he shares the common belief that there should be equity and redress; what he seeks are methods of ensuring that we do so in a manner that does not compromise quality and ensures greater equity.

Thus what people need to debate is not whether Benatar is racist .Benatar's argument is about the orgy of "absurdities and perils" that accompany the use of race in AA policy which in his view will eventually result in reduction in quality. This has unwittingly created the incorrect perception that race in itself leads to a reduction in quality. While there may well be "absurdities and perils"- what I choose to call challenges- the use of race in itself does not lead to a reduction in quality.

Let's me use UCT's student admission policy to demonstrate my point. Black students applying for Health Sciences at UCT are allowed entry on lower points than their white counterparts. I do not see how the use of race here lowers quality. From my observation as a black African student at UCT, I attend the same lectures, tutorials; write the same exams as my white counterparts. So it would be fair to say that when a black person graduates from UCT, all things equal, his degree is of the same quality as that of a white graduate. The point here is that you identify individuals who have the drive and potential to succeed at University, give them support and subject them to the same rigorous standards; that way quality is maintained. This is simply how weights and scales work; you may want to take away one large chunk of "white weights" from the one side, while slowly adding smaller "brown", "purple" and "pink" weights to the other side, for some time the scale will be tipped over but with the correct balancing act, the scale will again be equal; this time more diverse and pleasing to the eye.

Can the same be said of staff appointments at UCT? Can we use race in staff appointments without a compromise on quality? The answer again lies in quality-assurance and not race. A black staff member appointed because they meet the minimum requirements must have the commitment and potential to succeed. Once appointed, they must be supported by their more qualified counterparts and must be subjected to the same rigorous performance requirements; should they fail to perform they must be dismissed in the same way that a non-performing white lecturer would be. Having standards such as "A-rated researchers" in place is what motivates academic progress and improvement in quality. I am sure that, even though Prof. Benatar became a teacher at UCT on "merit", it is because of his hard work, the maintenance high standards and support from more senior staff members that today he has had the opportunity to deliver such a controversial Professorial Inaugural lecture.

One needs to understand the objectives of transformation in Higher Education holistically. It is about creating opportunity for access without compromising quality. While you might lower standards on access you need to maintain other "internal" standards to ensure quality is not compromised. Quality-assurance from within, after relaxation on entry, will automatically filter-out those who will compromise quality, race then simply becomes coincidental.

Perhaps the challenge here is that Benatar's argument is a philosophical argument- a rigorous exercise of logic- about how things ought to be. It perhaps does not attach enough weight to how things "really" are. According to Labour Force Survey of March 2006 the number of Africans formally unemployment stood at 30,7% as opposed to 4,7% of their white counterparts. In 2001 approximately 57% of individuals in South Africa were living below the poverty income line and the Gini-coefficient has been increasing, meaning that the poor are getting poorer. In 2003 Sixty-one percent of Africans and 38% coloureds were poor, compared with 5% percent of Indians and one percent of whites[3]. Given that most of the wealth is still in white hands, it is not difficult to see why, for a black person, the intervention of obtaining a higher degree is less than "sufficient(ly) rectificatory." Unlike like most white people who are socially and financially secure, black people are not liberated to pursue self-interest after obtaining their degrees. They often carry the burden of having to educate and feed their younger brothers and sisters, with the African family being "extended" in nature the effects are often wrought to the perplexed extreme. It will take blacks a long time to be fully compensated and sufficiently liberated; the obstacles are far too many and deeply embedded. As much as the use of race appears to be epistemically irresponsible, it is a lesser evil than of the use of the number of higher degrees one has and how much money they now earn; disadvantage and race are much more correlated.

I certainly agree with Prof. Benatar that if race is used irresponsibly in widow dressing exercises, political patronage and nepotism it will certainly lead to a reduction in quality. I understand his frustration; there is a plethora of evidence of such in Higher Education. One need not look far to see why. We have in the Western Cape CPUT being run like a backyard crèche and at our own UCT we see the puppet show currently parading at Bremner. But I suspect that these have nothing to do with race, but the manipulation of race for immoral means.

Black people do not despair! Debates such as these are very important for the psyche of black people. The fact that "others" see Affirmative Action as lowering standards can only encourage black people to work even harder than their white counterparts to prove themselves. If the standards from within are maintained and not lowered, perhaps in the future we will be debating how AA has led to an improvement in quality rather than its reduction.

Lebogang Hoveka is the Provincial Secretary of the South Africna Students Congress and a Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at UCT.