Woolworths: An open letter to Ferial Haffajee

Dirk Hermann responds to the City Press editor's defence of 'employment equity'

Open letter to Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press

Dear Ferial Haffajee,

I'm writing this letter in reaction to your article ‘Woolworths boycott brigade' of 6 September 2012 (see here).

In your article you refer to your own and to coloured South Africans' struggle to find your place at Wits. You write that the only reason your generation could ‘clamber out of one class, out of a distorted destiny' was affirmative action. You write that you are ‘deeply grateful for my place at the table ... Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk.'

You use the saga at Woolworths as the setting and stand up for Woolworths's affirmative action process.

However, you would not be able to apply for the post that Woolworths advertised in the Western Cape since you are not an ‘African Black'. Only ‘African Blacks' can apply for the post in the Planning and Marketing Division.

This Woolworths advertisement excludes people like you, not based on your disadvantage in the past, but your race. A sum is made based on the national racial demographics and if your race group is overrepresented, you are excluded.

There is no difference between Woolworths's approach to affirmative action and that of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) or Jimmy Manyi's controversial views.

Everything is based on absolute representation of the country's racial demographics. You cannot make South Africa equal by counting everyone by their race.

In an open letter to Manyi, Trevor Manuel stated that his views constitute ‘racism in die mould of HF Verwoerd'. This is because the full consequence of this argument is that people have to migrate to be appointed or promoted, in other words, it is a social engineering programme. This is also what the DCS testified in Solidarity's case against them.

This mathematical approach does not take your plea of disadvantages in the past and hope for the future into account; it only considers your race. It is no longer affirmative action, but a racial count.

This is why the Employment Equity Act prohibits practices of absolute exclusion. It leads to absurd results. Article 14 of the Act prohibits quotas and the explanatory memorandum to the Act states that there should not be any absolute ceilings for appointments or promotions for any individual.

In the case of PSA vs the Minister of Justice, the court found that provision should also be made for the legitimate expectations of the designated group.

In the Barnard case it was found that absolute exclusion affects the dignity and equality of those who are disadvantaged. In the case against the DCS on behalf of February and four other coloured employees, the court also found that the Act does not allow quotas. The case deals with the exclusion of coloured employees in the Western Cape based on the national demography.

Woolworths's absolute exclusion regarding applications for post is therefore, without doubt, not sanctioned by the Employment Equity Act.

To defend something that is not legally allowed with the argument that the ends justify the means is very dangerous. It undermines the rule of law. Everything done under the banner of affirmative action is not right, fair or morally justifiable.

One cannot be a selective democrat and fight for freedom of speech on the one hand, but turn a blind eye when an institution threatens the rule of law. If you believe in the supremacy of the Constitution, you believe in the full authority of the Constitution. If this authority defends the right to dignity and equality for non-designated groups, you should also protect these rights.

We cannot allow practice to determine the law. We are a constitutional state in which transformation must happen, not a transformational state in which the constitution must function. As an activist who defends our liberal, democratic constitution, you should join us in the fight against Woolworths. It is not a fight against affirmative action, but for the rule of law so people like you can also apply for any post at Woolworths and that disadvantaged people's right to dignity and equality are protected.


Dirk Hermann

Deputy General Secretary: Solidarity

Issued by Solidarity, September 7 2012

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