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Assessing race-based affirmative action in South African universities

A thoughtful essay today from Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town about the dilemmas of affirmative action. While acknowledging many adverse consequences, he ultimately concludes the policy is still necessary, and I think rightly assesses broad consensus about this. Nonetheless, the debates in South Africa are obviously reminiscent of those in the United States, where we also continue to wrestle with how to address a history of institutionalized discrimination without contributing to the furthering of group division.

…There are two fundamental arguments against the use of race. The first is that racial categorisation undermines our national commitment to nonracialism.

It forces us, and especially youngsters born at the time of the first democratic elections, to view the world, themselves and others in terms of racial categories.

The second argument against race as a basis for affirmative action is that it may include black students who are certainly not disadvantaged, may come from wealthier homes than most whites and may have had the benefits of 12 years of private-school education.

These are the reasons we ought to move away from a race-based policy. We should accept it in the interim only if there is no ­better solution and only if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Unfortunately, the University of Cape Town’s experience is that this is still the case.

If the task were only to identify economic disadvantage, this could be done by asking about income or by looking at the school a potential student attended. But the problem is that educational disadvantage has been the consequence of many determinants — including, but not limited to, economic disadvantage..

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Assessing race-based affirmative action in South African universities

  1. Great article, thanks for highlighting it. I’m looking forward to part 2 that discusses:

    “So the question we have to confront is this: Why is there a difference in the performance by race even in students from the same privileged schools and middle-class ­socioeconomic status?”

    As someone who grew up in a racially divided area (ex.: upon white person boarding public bus, black riders express disgust), I have my own theories. I’m curious to see which are supported by research, and which may only be specific to my hometown, under the radar.

    Posted by Carolyn Yohn | January 6, 2012, 10:26 am
  2. I cannot agree with Prof Price’s assertion affirmative action is still needed, or ever was needed

    I believe this practice has done more to prevent the same disadvantaged group of citizens it was intended to uplift, from achieving a much higher level of economic success than would have been the case should those of us with the level of skill and experience (that our political and business leaders are always mouthing off about being so desperately needed whenever a television camera is pointed in their direction) been encouraged to use our abilities to grow the economy and keep the existing infrastructure working for the benefit of the nation.

    What we NEED is to get the many tens of thousands of skilled people back doing the jobs they are best able to do, no matter what skin colour they happened to be born into.

    18 years after freedom, an entire generation has grown up in a free society, with affirmative action; yet the vast majority of this generation has failed to meet the level of skill acquisition required to play a functional role in the workplace today.

    Racially based affirmative action has been, is and always will be a disaster to the people it intends to benefit, and to our nation as a whole.

    Posted by Mike | February 24, 2012, 3:33 pm
  3. I am seventeen years old. I am black. And I think affirmative action should be abolished. I am just over a year away from going to varsity and I would hate being placed just because I am black. I want to know I got my seat in a lecture hall because I deserved to not because of what race I am. Affirmative action is aimed to work against racism of the past but it is in actual fact re-establishing it. People that were not affected by racism of any sort (like myself) are now being handed things on a silver platter and that shouldn’t be the case. We should all work towards our success.

    Posted by Fanele-abongwe Zama | August 20, 2012, 4:43 am
  4. Affirmative action… the word that strikes fear into the hearts of many white people. I know because I’m one of them. I’m a white male, Afrikaans speaking, in my mid thirties, so I was supposed to have reaped the rewards of an injust South Africa in the apartheid years… right. But: what isn’t taken into account is the way that I had to grow up. My dad was a full-blown alcoholic who never worked. My mom worked to keep us alive… we didn’t even have a TV, so I couldn’t talk with the other kids about things that happened on TV… I was a bit of an outcast in that sense.

    When I was in Standard Seven, my mother left her work whilst in the middle of a depression session, and hasn’t had a job since. We all had to do our bit to help stay alive. I had to do odd jobs, mow lawns, wash cars, etc to get money to live. I lived at the library, read many books, studied hard at school because I wanted to rise above my circumstances. I couldn’t go and study after school. There wasn’t money for that, and already at that time I was the wrong colour.
    I had to go and work straight away as there were many debts to pay. My younger sister also had to get through school, and we needed a place to live. We lost the house etc, so I had to rent a place for us to stay in. I did a part time computer programming course as it turned out that I had an aptitude for that, and eventually became a computer programmer. Today I’m doing well, but I often have to ignore job postings because I’m one of the “previously advantaged”. Not that I really was though. I had to work extremely hard to get where I am today.

    I agree that what happened in the past in South Africa was wrong, but it doesn’t help to dote on it. We have to move on. I get angry when youngsters don’t use their opportunities to study hard and rise above circumstances. Especially those that have all of the opportunities to do well and just throw it in the water.

    I don’t personally think that the amount of affirmative action that is out there is a good thing. There are many “innocent” people that are getting the short end of the stick, but besides that it just deepens an already deep rift and creates resentment. You cannot fix a wrong with a wrong. Discrimination shouldn’t have a place in our democratic society.

    Posted by James Jordan | September 1, 2012, 7:49 am
  5. Historically in many societies race was used as the category to deny or bestow benefits on different groups. That condition persisted for generations producing among other things a structural underclass. In order to reverse that condition we must identify those who were denied. The identifier is race. The broarder classification of economics does not address the underlying issue. Furthermore there is generally a legacy of impediments to equality. The denied group suffers from poverty leading to poor schools poor job prospects etc.

    Posted by Michael Fauconier | October 11, 2012, 8:51 am

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