FNB's needless concession to Solidarity

Eusebius McKaiser says the bank shouldn't have backed down on race-based bursaries

Solidarity used the Christmas lull to score a quick victory over First National Bank by getting the bank to hastily and needlessly concede that a blacks-only bursary scheme it is operating is not entirely kosher.  The compromise agreement is that the bursary scheme can remain provided that alternative schemes open to all race groups co-exist with this race specific one. This is utter nonsense. A good pragmatic response from FNB, perhaps, but one that betrays FNB's lack of appreciation for why a blacks-only bursary scheme is both acceptable and even necessary. By conceding the substance of Solidarity's argument, FNB thereby undercuts its own justification for the blacks-only scheme. This suggests that FNB's decision to launch such a bursary scheme - one for black employees' kids - was done for politically correct reasons rather than because of corporate social justice considerations. If it were the latter, then FNB would have - should have - resisted the badly thought through gripes from Solidarity.

It is worth revisiting the facts and understanding why I assert these opening claims about the matters.

FNB reportedly have a bursary scheme for employees' children attending primary school. The chief criteria are financial need (qualifying employees earn less than R100 000 per annum) AND race (qualifying employees are black African, Indian & coloured).

Solidarity - the country's anti-race bulldogs - object to the second criterion. They argue that race-specific bursary schemes of this kind are wrong on the premise that - and this bit is important, so note the wording - white children in primary schools did not benefit from Apartheid.

Does Solidarity's argument hold any water?

Not at all. It is an argument that is tired, tiring and sloppily thought through. The pervasiveness of this less-than-cogent logic in the anti-affirmative action camp beggars belief. It is equally tiring having to trot out (again) the right response - but that is necessary. So here goes.

First, it is clear that race identification "in itself " is not what Solidarity has an issue with - despite the initial language in which the objection is couched. The details of their objection reveals a more pointed object of criticism: the excluded group of learners (young whites) did not benefit from Apartheid. This distinction is important. It means that Solidarity - rightly, if so - are not against race based redress in its entirety, but against particular race based policies that lack justification within the broader scheme of redress policy packages. The problem, of course, is that in this particular instance, Solidarity have not identified a scheme (the bursary) that is unjustified.

Second - and related - is the question of whether the phrase 'did not benefit from Apartheid' does enough ethical justificatory work in the objection of Solidarity to the race based bursary scheme. It does not.

A] For one thing, it is an historical fact that Apartheid was executed in group terms - with great success. Even though notions of 'groups' are conceptually and metaphysically fragile, it does not follow that effective working definitions of groups are socially and politically inert. The socially constructed groups 'black', 'white', 'indian' and 'coloured' took on a reality we all lived through and with. It is UTTERLY DISHONEST for any South African - particularly whites - to pretend that groups do not exist. They do.

B] Given that groups exist, and were the basis of Apartheid policies, it follows straightforwardly that redress at "group level" is necessary to dismantle the "group based" structural inequalities that Apartheid - courtesy of its inherently group based logic!! - left us with.

SO, with all these conceptual and historical facts (truisms, in fact) rehearsed, we can return to the issue at hand - the FNB race based bursary scheme.

The scheme, insofar as it targets groups of employees who suffered structurally - qua group membership - during Apartheid, is justified. The innocent little white kids in primary school born after 1994 DID benefit from Apartheid. They benefit from the general social advantage of being born into white lineage. In purely statistical terms, a white kid - simply in virtue of its arbitrary whiteness - STILL has a better shot at reaching the top of life's ladder than her black counterpart. That is fact - notwithstanding the sprinkling of BEE cats.

Does this mean that all blacks are poor and needy, and all whites, rich and not in need of assistance? Obviously not. BUT ... these exceptions do not mean that individual assessments for benefit schemes are always necessary and that group based benefit schemes are inappropriate.

It is a red herring to point to the existence of a few Tokyo Sexwales and a few poor whites at your street corner. This is a bit like pointing to Oprah Winfrey when denying a bunch of black kids from Harlem bursary schemes that target them specifically as poor "black" kids. Benefits and burdens remain distributed largely along race-group lines .... let's not overindulge in 1) debating individual assessments vs. group assessments ... nor 2) perpetuate the false dichotomy of choosing between class based strategies and race based strategies, for dismantling past inequalities.

Last, the only remaining objection might be that as a "private employer" FNB ought to be race-insensitive in terms of its internal benefit schemes. But this is an overstatement of an employer's obligations: for one thing, Solidarity does not have a problem with the financial need requirement which already disqualify many employees (black and white), including ones who earn, say, R110 000 per annum and so arguably still identify as needy families (moral: employee benefit schemes may discriminate between groups within a company provided this can be justified, as per the logic of this piece...) ; for another, it does not (absent further information) appear like employees were promised automatic eligibility to the bursary scheme as part of a salary package. It is thus not quite clear where the entitlement - in positive rights terms - comes from. The debate is best understood then as an issue of whether the "exclusion" is justified, which it clearly is, by virtue of the politico-historical considerations outlined here.

Unless, of course, you think that SA was founded in 1994. Too many (mostly white) folks are beginning to think so - Solidarity included.

*Mckaiser is an associate at the Centre for the Study of Democracy. He is also a contributing editor and columnist at Business Day.

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