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Nothing New in the Benatar Inaugural Lecture

21 May 2007 - 12:30

By Dr Sam Raditlhalo

An entire month has gone by in which, intermittently but with a remarkable degrees of anger, grandstanding and the occasional gnashing of teeth, the topic of discussion most publicized and spoken about in both local major newspapers of Cape Town and now in the national paper, the Mail & Guardian, has been Professor David Benatar's contentious views regarding the policy of Employment Equity at the University of Cape Town. For some among us, it has been a welcome development through which we might address issues that are sometimes difficult to articulate except in well-meaning committees and journals.

The latest figure to speak on the issue was Professor Achille Mbembe from the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WISER) in his talk, 'Black Victimhood, White Melancholia: The Paradoxes of Transformation in South Africa'. Professor Mbembe deepened the discussions by exploring six postulations. I found it remarkable that two of these are really what we ought to be concerned with, being A) The idea that racial equality in South Africa is only now starting to happen, even while there are serious attempts to say that such equalization happened with the glorious date of April 27th, 1994, and B) that the wholesale importation of the oppositional stances on Employment Equity in South Africa from the hardened positions of the United States of America is bound to harm any meaningful transformation of the South African polity.

I believe these points are important in themselves because they reveal the lacunae of incomprehension that critics of E.E. never wish to address: that there is a long way to go in assuring the full attainment of social, political and civil rights in South Africa. While the iconic date of the Freedom Day in South Africa still resonates with fading memories occasioned by the wonderment of the very idea of the very first democratic election in the country and embossed with the question 'Where were You On April 27th 1994?', the reality is that social interaction across the spectrum of institutions is still arbitrated by conventions of the past. While such interactions are slowly changing and according to hard-nosed efforts across board, from time to time something bubbles to the surface (as was the case with the Old Mutual litigation involving racial insults and epithets). Perceptions play a crucial part in any workplace. For White South Africans, the Black majority is perceived as contentious and regard themselves as entitled to work opportunities, workplace etiquette and respect while they do not have the necessary skills to execute their responsibilities. For Black South Africans, there seems to be a wall beyond which they are unable to penetrate so that, even if one were to push a transformation agenda, it is hard to continue to do so when the obstacles are hidden behind practices that seem neutral but belie a deep discomfort with change. This really should be one of the ways by which we can use Mbembe's analysis as we re-read Benatar's limited critique.

The other point which has been remarkably absent from the entire debate has been what Mbembe sees as the wholesale importation of contentious AA rebuttals form the US. While the AA-EE divide reflects the fact that in the US the policy was meant to address the inequalities visited on a minority, hence the need for affirmation, here in South Africa the EE policy is meant to provide avenues of redress for the majority of the population who were affirmed by decades of struggle and vindicated by the arrival of the political settlement. What Benatar chose to do was to conflate the two societies' realignments as exact. In fact, any reading of the issue should begin with the observation that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already had made something called "affirmative action" a remedy federal courts could impose on violators of the Act. Likewise, after 1965 federal contractors had been subject to President Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order 11246, requiring them to take "affirmative action" to make sure they were not discriminating. Thus AA started as a shop-floor issue. While the occasional court case and government initiative made the news and stirred some controversy, affirmative action was pretty far down the list of public excitements until the autumn of 1972, when the Secretary of Labor's Revised Order No. 4, fully implementing the Executive Order, landed on campus by way of directives from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Its predecessor, Order No. 4, first promulgated in 1970, cast a wide net over American institutions, both public and private. By extending to all contractors the basic apparatus of the construction industry "plans," the Order imposed a one-size-fits-all system of "underutilization analyses," "goals," and "timetables" on hospitals, banks, trucking companies, steel mills, printers, airlines-indeed, on all the scores of thousands of institutions, large and small, that did business with the government, including a special set of institutions with a particularly voluble and articulate constituency, namely, American universities.

At first, university administrators and faculty found the rules of Order No. 4 murky but hardly a threat to the established order. The number of racial and ethnic minorities receiving PhDs each year and thus eligible for faculty jobs was tiny. Any mandate to increase their representation on campus would require more diligent searches by universities, to be sure, but searches fated nevertheless largely to mirror past results. The Revised Order, on the other hand, effected a change that punctured any campus complacency: it included women among the "protected classes" whose "underutilization" demanded the setting of "goals" and "timetables" for "full utilization." Unlike blacks and Hispanics, women were getting PhDs in substantial and growing numbers. If the affirmative action required of federal contractors was a recipe for "proportional representation," then Revised Order No. 4 was bound to leave a large footprint on campus. Some among the professoriate exploded in a fury of opposition to the new rules, while others responded with an equally vehement defense of them. [entries: affrimative action [page does not load!] Accessed: May 16th 2007]

This is how we should read Benatar's analysis, not the taxonomical contortions that he arrives at but simply that his analysis refuses to see just how far he replicates the US contentions. The public turn of philosophy with regard to normative theories of justice and ethics at the time accounted for significant amount of (academic) publications on the subject. We are talking here of the period 1971 up and leading to the present, with luminaries such as John Rawls, the adamantine Carl Cohen, George E. Curry right up to William Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River. What the contention shows is that there are as many defenders of AA as there are detractors. But what is not acknowledged is that in simply saying what our society is undergoing is coterminous with the United States' problems regarding equality, we are then observing one country's ugly realities as though these were ours. Our context, that has been clearly articulated in these pages throughout the past month are about societal transformation of engineered inequality at all levels. When we come across well-meaning institutions, we must insist that the 'capuccino model' of transformation is flawed and will need constant, on-going dismantling since we are no longer 'reforming' such institutions. Observing the politicized dance between, on the one hand, "reformation" and "transformation", Steve Biko allowed for the following assertion: Blacks no longer seek to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. Blacks are out to transform the system and make of it what they wish (1987 [1978]: 44). I for one do not see why that assertion by Biko should suddenly fill us with the kinds of anxieties that Benatar sought to unleash as though transformation itself is an abomination.