Lessons on Affirmative Action

Jack Bloom MPL

DA Gauteng Caucus Leader

Certain subjects arouse high emotions where facts get lost despite being readily available.

This is the case with affirmative action, which has been tried in the form of group preferences for many years around the world.

The best world-wide study is by Thomas Sowell. He says that many people are for or against the theory of affirmative action, but its actual results receive remarkably little attention.

India has had affirmative action policies longer than any other country. Although meant to expire 20 years after independence in 1947, they have been extended again and again.

But only about 6% of the “untouchables”, India’s lowest caste, have ever benefited from these policies.

Most of the truly poor benefit little from the preferences and quotas instituted in their name but primarily going to others.

Moreover, inter-group hostilities have risen as preferences now cover more than three-quarters of India’s population.

The most tragic outcome of preferential quotas has been in Sri Lanka where Tamils were discriminated against in favour of the majority Sinhalese.

This led to a bitter civil war in which more than 80 000 people died, and everyone ended worse off.

In Malaysia, the New Economic Policy adopted in 1971 aimed for 30% indigenous Malay ownership by 1990.

The NEP was extended under a new name when only 18% Malay ownership was achieved by this date.

Only 5% of Malays benefitted from the NEP, but there was an impressive decrease in general poverty achieved by policies that led to strong economic growth.

This growth alleviated inter-group tensions, which were also dampened by draconian clamps on free speech.

But crony capitalism enriched a small elite and increased inequalities within indigenous Malays.

The “brain drain” worsened – about 20% of university-educated Malaysians leave the country, mostly Chinese, and more than one million work abroad.

Sowell’s overall conclusion is that preferential group policies often produce benefits only for a few and major problems for society as a whole.

Apartheid in South Africa was largely a group preference policy for whites at the expense of the black majority.

The vast inequities it produced make redress policies necessary, but these must truly assist those most in need.

Share transfers should be broad-based, including workers, unlike the more than R500 billion transferred to a politically-connected elite.

Dr Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former president Thabo Mbeki, criticises Black Economic Empowerment for stifling growth and spurring corruption.

He says it creates a culture of cronyism and entitlement that discourages black entrepreneurship and education.

According to Mbeki: “BEE tells blacks—‘you don’t have to build your own business, you don’t have to take risk, the whites will give you a job and shares in their company’.”

The most effective affirmative action for the greatest number involves the mass creation of opportunities so that all people have the means to advance themselves.

There is much to debate on how to achieve this, including specifically race-based redress measures, but we should steer away from policies that have failed elsewhere.