Time to look at BEE in black and white

11 September 2012 - 02:15 By Zama Ndlovu

THE avalanche of negative comments Woolworths received from many whites on its employment policies has little to do with the company.

THE avalanche of negative comments Woolworths received from many whites on its employment policies has little to do with the company.

Woolworths is a politically safe proxy for many white South Africans to vent their frustration against affirmative action.

The irate comments splashed across Woolworths' Facebook page represent the opinions of whites who feel aggrieved by empowerment legislation but are smart enough not to mention this in their places of work.

Many of them assume the only way that black people can be employable is through such legislation. They assume that if people were employed only on the basis of their qualifications, the entire management staff would be white.

They overlook the fact that white people barely make up 10% of the population, and even with the use of affirmative action directives, they are still grossly over-represented in the corporate world.

These are the people to whom black professionals often have to report, and who are responsible for their performance appraisals, promotions and pay increases.

These are the peers with whom we have lunch, who will sometimes casually slip a comment that implies that black people are somehow "different".

It is because of this kind of deep-seated prejudice that they are blind to the fact that such legislation has to exist, at least temporarily.

What many white South Africans fail to consider is that black professionals don't want their conscience to be legislated either.

Racial quotas strip us of the professional reputation and respect we have worked so hard to achieve.

We are the "great addition"; we are the evidence of diversity when it suits the suits when they do their PR. However, inside the walls of most of these corporates, black people are often seen as a human resource headache.

We are viewed as one-dimensional careerists who are concerned only with money and career mobility. As academic Jane Duncan wrote in her recent article Racist, Racist South Africa: "Racism is not just a set of attitudes, but a systemic phenomenon.''

When white people erroneously diagnose "reverse racism", they completely ignore the implicit "systematic" privileges they continue to enjoy in our society. No amount of shouting will change this.

But getting white people to understand the effects of apartheid, particularly on their attitudes, is a near impossible task. We need to meet them in a place defined by logic, not by emotion. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a heated debate about quotas with colleagues. The racial make-up of the two sides was predictable.

What was unusual was the raw honesty of our conversation as this debate is often characterised by political correctness.

It was on the verge of a screaming match when one senior executive calmly asked a white colleague: "What would make you understand that this is required?"

With that one question he showed us that even with an emotional topic, reason and logic are the only constructive ways to engage the topic. The polemic was soon replaced by a sensible discussion on what the quotas were addressing rather than the validity of the system. We debated meaningful ways to measure the success of quotas and implement interventions that translate into real transformation rather than "cosmetic BEE".

The white executive even acknowledged that a well-articulated business plan would assist in making the system more responsive to transformation initiatives. Once it became a shared problem, everyone focused on solutions.

Although willing to acknowledge the effects of the previous government's policies, white people have consistently stopped short of concrete resolutions when it comes to righting the economic injustices of the past in the spaces in which they live and work.

To many, black inequality is for the black government to solve. However, economic segregation may be experienced by the black majority but its consequences will be felt by all of us.

We can't afford to stop and wait for whites to warm up to the idea of explicit redress, but maybe we can start explaining our motives with logic, being open to a more constructive debate on alternatives, and being more willing to show our own commitment as black elites to the cause.

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