Making sense of affirmative action : reflections on the politics of race and identity in South Africa
This thesis examines organizational programmes designed to manage racial identities in the South African workplace. It focuses on race-based affirmative action (AA) programmes. The AA debate has become a proxy for a more fundamental contest over the political boundaries of legitimate action and discourse. Notwithstanding pockets of resistance, there is consensus (amongst business leaders) on the need for AA policies. This is explained, in part, by post-1994 shifts in the boundaries of legitimacy. Rejection of AA is no longer a legitimate course of action. The AA controversy seems to be serving as a litmus test for the state of race relations in SA. The political transition has been accompanied by attempts to reconstitute political identities. It is suggested that the language of Africanism is providing the conceptual grammar with which to understand these processes. Race has become the primary axis through which an African identity, apposite to the 1990s, is being theorized. In the face of economic uncertainty and inequality the temptation is to naturalize identities. Hence the appeal of strictly defined race-based AA programmes. Despite the moral lexicon which has sprung up around AA, many companies are arguing that AA makes good business sense. It is needed to meet changes in the demographic profile of the consumer and supplier markets. The political and legislative imperative to implement AA means that companies need to make sense of it economically. This is not to suggest that managers are simply having to make a leap of faith with regards to AA. The issue is more complex: whilst many are making a virtue out of necessity, this necessity may prove to have its virtues. AA programmes cannot be understood in isolation from the economic 'realities' that enable, shape and constrain them. Given these adverse economic conditions, AA will, in all likelihood, have limited individual impact. At most, its gains will be modest. It will not eliminate the apartheid legacy of racial and gender inequalities, nor can it alone overcome the effects of other economic forces. AA needs to be located within a broader policy agenda aimed at promoting economic equity. It is in this respect that it has the potential to be an effective policy tool.