Recent events involving former Director-General of Labour and current Cabinet Spokesperson Jimmy Manyi have raised questions around the way the ANC puts the concepts of affirmative action and employment equity into practice. Government's decision to reconsider proposed new race-based labour legislation has accentuated the need for a rethink on the centrality of race in the ANC's efforts to address the injustices of the past.
A calculation showing that, in due course, a million jobs currently occupied by Coloureds in the Western Cape would have to be filled by blacks if proposed new labour legislation became law was dismissed by the ANC as unintended, until a television interview with Manyi as Director-General resurfaced, in which he stated just such ideals of social engineering.
Facing ANC electoral meltdown in the Western Cape, Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel penned a remarkable letter in which he accused the government in which he serves of racism, citing as proof draft legislation which he approved. His sentiments were roundly condemned by ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, but the long and the short seems to be that national demographics will no longer apply to employment equity quotas nationwide, and Coloured workers in the Western Cape will not be phased out of jobs - for now.
How did this messy altercation come about, what does it say about where we are, and how do we move forward?
South African democratisation in 1994 brought with it the concept that maintaining the power relations of 350 years of colonialism and "colonialism of a special type" would only result in the replication of such relations. Clearly, something had to be done.
To right "racial imbalances" a race-based system was adopted which, although well-intended, has produced some successes and some predictably crude results. Accepting a race-based solution for a race-based problem was always going to be morally problematic, and perhaps its chickens are coming home to roost.
Its main consequences have been the policies of affirmative action, black economic empowerment (BEE) and employment equity.
The lofty ideal of BEE was to give black South Africans the stake in the economy they had been systemically denied under white hegemony. In the rush to find new black business partners, established business predictably went for those with proven business acumen or at least some political connectivity, to use Schabir Shaik's phrase.
The unintended result was the creation of a small, filthy rich black upper crust, leaving an increasingly envious proletariat mired in abject poverty. Government has now realised the error of this specific way, and has decided on a more broad-based, but still racially exclusive, approach. Its precise form remains unclear, but it will strive to empower more of the poor masses, and will have a longer name, adding "broad based" to BEE, to become BBBEE. Hopefully, that will work better at addressing South African inequality. One will have to wait and see.
Affirmative action has been more successful at giving black South Africans access to positions they were previously systemically denied. The original rationale presented in favour of it was to give preference to individuals from previously disadvantaged racial groups where qualifications or skills levels were roughly equal, which one can hardly find issue with.
But was it ever the ideal that medical schools would manipulate their entrance criteria so that a white child would need more marks than a black child to have a chance at becoming a doctor? Who wins in such a situation? Or that crucial positions in the police or medical services would remain vacant rather than use a suitable or qualified white person to render, or in government-speak, "deliver", the service? Surely not.
The problem is not at all as wide-spread as some right-wingers would make us believe, but to the extent that it exists, it surely is inexcusable. Unfortunately, the critical analysis which has lead to the rethink on BEE has not really materialised on affirmative action yet.
At least the Manyi/Manuel episode referred to above has opened up the debate on employment equity. Government has, through Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, agreed to veto its own proposed legislation so that national demographics would no longer automatically replace regional demographics nationwide.
Clearly, all but the ridiculously naive must realise this is a strategic sop brought about by the predominance of the Coloured vote in the Western Cape, but it should really raise or extend the debate regarding whether race alone is a sound measure of affirmatively righting the wrongs of the racially divided past.
Is it morally acceptable to attempt to cure the ills brought about by differentiating between people on a racial basis, by differentiating between them on a racial basis? If not, how does one address the continuing income gap which, if measured in terms of race, remains skewed firmly in favour of whites?
Only a fool would claim an easy answer to these questions, which to my mind brings a virtual triangle of interests into play: race, income and empowerment. By empowerment I mean the ability or capacity to do the job.
The focus on race has been explained by the point of departure that race and class has, in South Africa, historically overlapped to the point of being interchangable. It was codified by apartheid and was formal government policy. The question we need to ask ourselves in moving forward is whether this central assumption still holds, whether it will continue to hold, and whether it needs tweaking in the interests of the country and all it belongs to, black and white.
If the now freely admitted relative failure of BEE to address mass poverty and the acceptance that the draft labour laws' one size fit all national demographic equity targets won't cut it means one thing, it must surely be that the dogma of racial representivity as a cure to all ills has been challenged. If Government's brains trust really focuses on the outcomes of the BEE and Manyi debates, it might well reach the same conclusion.
The challenge in South Africa surely is to empower the poor of all races with the ability to render service to the country. My plea is that the triangle of race, income and empowerment needs to be discussed and its configuration reconsidered, because its current form has led to too many anomalies, the most glaring of which has obviously been the creation of the ostentatiously wealthy black elite in a nation which should be non-racial and pro-poor.
In the triangle I am referring to, race has been far too predominant. As the overlap between race and class becomes less absolute, affirmative action would need to move away from its current racial base, with more emphasis on helping the poor of all races. Equally, affirmative action can only lead to better service delivery if people with the requisite skills are appointed: Skills level must trump race, or services will necessarily suffer.
It must be a discussion without a pre-determined outcome in which people are prepared to listen and be convinced. And it is a discussion, uncomfortable as it might be, that we as South Africans must surely have, for we ignore these anomalies at our peril.
Jan-Jan Joubert is Rapport's political editor. This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.
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