Affirmative action in South Africa Challenges, gains noted after 3 years of majority rule

April 04, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Joe Mthimunye is on the fast track in post-apartheid South Africa. Victor Ntshingila is not.

Mthimunye is a 32-year-old accountant riding a wave of black empowerment designed to wash away the legacy of 40 years of racial segregation, social injustice and economic exploitation.

Ntshingila, 27, also black, who graduated from college three months ago with a degree in administration and economics, has yet to find a job and is teetering between optimism and pessimism over the prospects of the new South Africa.

While the United States retreats from affirmative action, President Nelson Mandela's government has embraced it as a mechanism for righting the wrongs of the past. To date, it has had mixed results.

This "rainbow nation's" new constitution authorizes "legislative and other measures" to promote equality. But progress is proving easier to make in government than in private industry.

A University of Cape Town survey of 111 companies, employing almost 1 million workers, found that three years after the beginning of majority-black rule, 96 percent of the highest-paying jobs in the private sector are still held by whites, with only 3 percent occupied by blacks. The rest are shared by Indians and people of mixed race. For the lowest-paying jobs, the figures are almost exactly reversed.

The average wage for whites is more than double the average for blacks; unemployment among whites is 6.4 percent, compared with 41 percent among blacks. In government, so many experienced white bureaucrats have accepted retirement programs designed to make way for blacks that the auditor-general, Henri Kluever, warned last month that a continuing brain drain could endanger control of the nation's finances. "If the powers that be do not accord a higher priority to experience, skills and the consequent ability to do the job, the capacity to deliver [services] is going to be severely impaired," said Kluever.

A columnist for The Star, Joe Qwelane, noted last week that the bureaucracy during the years of apartheid provided "sheltered employment" for whites.

"Affirmative action, if not phased in sensibly, will defeat its otherwise noble intentions," he wrote. "Getting rid of useless whites merely to replace them with insufficiently trained blacks is not the answer."

Inevitably, affirmative action is seen by some whites as reverse discrimination -- a "new apartheid," in the words of F. W. de Klerk, former president and leader of the National Party, which introduced the policy of racial segregation in 1948.

As in the United States, affirmative action has been challenged in the courts. Thirty white attorneys, passed over for promotion at the Department of Justice, recently persuaded the Pretoria High Court that the department had acted illegally in failing to promote them.

The biggest difference from affirmative action in the United States is that in South Africa it is the majority -- not a minority -- that is targeted for help. Of the population of 41 million people, 32 million are black, 5 million white, 3 million of mixed race and 1 million of Asian descent.

One convincing indicator of the need for the "skills revolution" that government is planning to begin later this year: the 1996 World Competitiveness Yearbook ranked South Africa last among 46 developing countries in the education and training of its work force.

"It wasn't the intention of the [apartheid] system to empower black people," said Mthimunye, one of only 110 black accountants in the country. A graduate of a blacks-only college, he qualified as an accountant in 1994, when Mandela was about to become president.

"I don't think I would be where I am now [had the change not occurred] because opportunities would not have been offered," he said. "The whole issue of affirmative action and black empowerment is an inevitable transformation process. If you don't do that, how are you going to address the imbalances of the past?"

Mthimunye, like most qualified and experienced black professionals, finds that his services are at a premium. His salary has more than doubled in the past three years. At one point he had six job offers.

"They can almost demand their own price," said David Mitchell, executive placement director in Johannesburg with the international accounting firm Deloitte and Touche.

Mthimunye, whose father "never saw the door of a school," is already a partner in Gobodo Inc., one of the largest black accounting firms to emerge since the Mandela government came to power promising to promote black commerce and business.

The minister of public enterprises has ordered that 50 percent of all accounting for state-owned companies be placed with black firms. Legislation mandating a broader allocation of work to black businesses is expected later this year. Mthimunye said 65 percent of his company's business comes from the government.

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