Across the globe, Affirmative Action broadly understood as a preferential redistributive policy intended to redress socio-economic inequalities created by past discriminatory labour policies, has been fraught with controversy and immense opposition from those who do not benefit from it. South Africa’s version has faced similar challenges to the extent that it is generally believed that non-beneficiaries’ reluctance to support it is based on their need to protect their long-standing economic advantage.
The purpose of this study was to explore issues underlying the enduring stakeholder conflict over Affirmative Action in the South African context. In doing this, it focused exclusively on non-beneficiaries, investigating their perceptions of the policy. Additionally, the study sought to establish whether non-beneficiaries think Affirmative Action had any implications for the creation of a workplace environment in which all employees feel valued.
The study was conducted following an exploratory approach and a qualitative design. In-depth interviews were conducted with 20 non-beneficiaries ranging from business practitioners to public representatives in parliament. Purposive sampling techniques were used to sample participants from organisations that had publically declared their views in opposing Affirmative Action.
Findings showed that non-beneficiaries viewed Affirmative Action as a racist policy with a strict focus on numerically-representative outcomes. The study found that non-beneficiaries view Affirmative Action as a policy whose impact extends beyond workplace recruitment processes. It also showed that the policy is considered to have created negative externalities for the society and hampered business efficiency. The study revealed a belief that the policy has failed to correct socio-economic disparities. It also established that non-beneficiaries were unlikely to support Affirmative Action as they considered it an extractive economic policy. Furthermore, the study revealed that lack of good-quality economy-relevant education and skills were critical binding constraints to effective implementation of any measures to eradicate persistent socio-economic inequalities. An alternative input-based, socio-economic focused framework is proposed to address the fissures identified in the existing policy.