Employment Equity not by definition illiberal - Helen Zille

DA leader says her party supports empowerment measures that broaden opportunities, oppose those that manipulate outcomes

I agree with Eusebius McKaiser that measures to achieve redress and employment equity are not by definition illiberal, as some voluble critics seem to suggest. (Why Zille shouldn't have apologised for supporting employment equityCape Times Monday November 11.)

Indeed, internationally, affirmative action of various kinds is a core component of the liberal project.

The DA has a clear position on the matter, that we sum up as follows: we support empowerment strategies that broaden opportunities and create jobs. We oppose those that manipulate outcomes (tenders, contracts, and lucrative "deployments") for the politically connected few -- an approach that inevitably drives away investment, increases corruption and destroys jobs.  Cadre deployment (masquerading as BEE) also undermines the building of a "capable state" which is the central pillar of the National Development Plan.

We assess each employment equity proposal against this yardstick, to reach a considered conclusion. We have a framework within which to do so. The fact that we failed to manage this process properly in relation to the Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill does not detract from the validity of our approach. We should have applied our criteria properly.  We didn't. I apologised for this. I do not apologise for supporting appropriate measures to advance employment equity. The distinction is crucial.

The debate of the past few weeks has been driven by a false dichotomy, set up by our critics to the right and left.

The former argue that affirmative action and employment equity are incompatible with liberalism. These critics have come perilously close to postulating a choice between "merit" and "colour". We reject this outright. It is racist, plain and simple. The DA believes that inherent talent and ability are spread throughout all sectors of society. Apartheid classified people by race and denied them opportunities to develop their potential. It is perfectly consistent with liberal principles to argue that a democratic government must actively engage to reverse this legacy. The DA believes in redress. Part of a government's responsibility is to broaden meaningful opportunities for all citizens to fulfil their potential.

The question is how? Our left-wing critics argue that any criticism of race-based preference is "reactionary" and a "rejection of racial realism."

To them, all forms of racial preference are inherently "positive and progressive", irrespective of their methods or consequences. So they will justify Verwoerdian state coercion and social engineering, including race classification, quotas, politically-motivated interventions in the economy, and crippling penalties for "non-compliance". They justify the transfer of company shares to the politically connected to create a few billionaires without adding new economic value or creating new jobs. They conveniently overlook that these transfers have cost South Africa almost R500-billion over 20 years with dismal broad-based empowerment results. In making these arguments, they effectively justify the wholesale destruction of jobs which undermines black economic empowerment.

Both extremes of this argument are good examples of Orwell's maxim: "Four legs good, two legs bad". There is no room for nuance.

Complex policy issues cannot be dealt with in this blinkered way. That is why we have drawn up a framework to distinguish between equity initiatives that actually broaden black economic empowerment, and those that don't.

We have applied it where we govern with excellent results.

There are many examples. The most recent is the delivery of the new world-class Mitchells Plain hospital which was delivered on time and within budget, and with a massive empowerment impact.

Almost half of the R600-million budget was spent on goods and services supplied by HDI-owned contractors. And over R25-million was disbursed to local labour. During the construction process, 42 local contractors from Mitchells Plan and 28 local contractors from Philippi worked on the project which created 5,622 job opportunities. Of these, 3,169 local youth had their first employment experience on the contract and 100 local workers were given project management training. It has been a lasting legacy project in terms of jobs and skills, and the community has an outstanding facility.

This is the DA's policy in action, and it is producing better and more sustainable genuine empowerment results than anywhere else in the country.

This certainly warrants no apology.

Helen Zille

DA Leader


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