Ferial Haffajee and EE

The City Press editor is a strong proponent of race laws, but does her career really validate the need for them?

On Sunday City Press editor Ferial Haffajee wrote a strident defence of the Employment Equity Act and other race-based African National Congress legislation. She argued that were it not for such laws she would never have made it to where she is today, and would instead be stuck in some low level job if not unemployed. She wrote:

"I am a proud affirmative action candidate. If it were not for the constitutional clause addressing redress and the laws that flowed from them, I would not have this great job....And I'd be stuck in Industria West behind a bank desk or in an unemployment queue dying a little every day. You see, that was the destiny of girls like me: a bank clerk or a clothing job, and I'd be unemployed because the industry went to the wall when the economy opened and we went Chinese. The apartheid system snuffed dreams by deforming destinies."

Later in this column she added: "The employment equity laws gave me the boost I coveted and a space to grow. Without them, I'd be nothing."

It may be true that at certain points of her later career Haffajee profited from the ANC government's racial laws, but would she really have been stuck in menial employment without them?

The account she gives of her upbringing and career in other contexts - when not defending the EEA - suggests not. According to a profile of her in the Wits Alumni Magazine Haffajee grew up in the coloured area of Bosmont in Johannesburg the child of clothing workers, who were devoted to their children's education and able to ensure that all three of them went on to study at university.

Haffajee attended Bosmont High School where she secured a university exemption in her matric exams which allowed her to take a place at the University of the Witwatersrand in the mid-1980s. This was not long after apartheid racial barriers to study at the university had been lifted, after a decades-long fight against them by liberal academics. After graduating in 1989 she secured a job at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits and then a position as a cadet journalist at the Weekly Mail in 1991.

In 1994 after the new ruling elite took control over the South African Broadcasting Corporation she took a position with the public broadcaster. In 1997 she was appointed a senior editor at the Financial Mail. This was the position she held at the time the Employment Equity Act was passed in parliament in late 1998, the law only coming into effect in 1999.

It is thus quite untrue for Haffajee to claim that without the Employment Equity Act she would be "nothing". At the very least she would still be a senior editor at the Financial Mail. She had moreover escaped her "destiny" in the 1980s even before the last apartheid laws had been dismantled.

The only point in her career where the racial laws of the ANC could have exerted a determinant effect on her career- given that they were not in existence for much of it - was in her promotion to the Mail & Guardian editorship in 2004.

The path she took into white-collar employment - though steep and strewn with significant obstacles - was similar to the one trod not long before by many Afrikaners from working class backgrounds. She came from a stable loving home, her parents were both employed, she got a solid albeit somewhat mediocre education at school, and secured the matric exemption that allowed her to attend a world class university. And unlike her parents' generation, or even her brothers', her progress was not significantly limited by apartheid legislation.

The reality is that the actual ladder of opportunity that she used to climb out of the working class - not the fictitious one she describes in her columns - has been significantly weakened under the ANC. As she herself acknowledges in her City Press column South Africa's clothing industry was decimated under the ANC government. In other words that stable blue collar work that allowed her parents to send three children on to university no longer exists.

Equally, the bizarre education policies pursued by the ANC cadres who took over the state post-1995 have had a particularly ruinous effect on coloured education. Up until 1991 this was on a steady upward trajectory - enabling ever more children from working class backgrounds to attend university. In 1991 82.8% of coloured pupils who wrote the matric examination passed, and 21.9% passed with university exemption. This went into reverse under the ANC and by 2007, despite a softening of assessment standards, the matric pass rate for coloured pupils was down to 78% with only 15.4% securing matric exemption - an effective 29.7% decline from 1991.

In reality then the very avenue of opportunity that allowed Haffajee to escape the fate of many of her contemporaries significantly narrowed rather than widened under an ANC government. It is difficult to see how the more stringent enforcement of the Employment Equity Act is going to remedy this horrific failure of governance.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter