In college, a professor I admired for his scientific scholarship once told me that he grades students by means of a sort of reverse affirmative action ranking if they are white, attractive, and wealthy. , in order to provide others who were “less privileged” with the benefit of what later became known as a level playing field. I was a young undergraduate at a leading UK university and it was the late 1970s.

I remember being somewhat troubled by this honest, if dubious, revelation, but I had other priorities at the time – balancing finishing my late essays with the allure of the squash court, the barrels of real ale in the student bar, the politics of the student union and the many attractive young women who graced the halls and lawns of this venerable institution.

It occurred to me at the time that at least he wasn’t branding the “less privileged” and he wasn’t lowering the bar either; he was simply making things more difficult for those he considered blessed with inherited benefits and the circumstances of their birth.

More than a decade earlier, in the United States, President JF Kennedy had issued an executive order for the first time directing federal contractors to take “positive steps to ensure that applicants are treated equally regardless of race , color, religion, sex, or national origin”.

This pioneering implementation of affirmative action, intended to provide equal opportunities in the labor market to all American citizens and not to give special treatment to those who were discriminated against, was the precursor to the ideas and practices who inspired my teacher who had grown up in formative liberalism. flourishing and progressive politics of the 1960s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and we see the emergence of discourses of privilege and the imperative to “check your privilege”, based on the idea that certain groups and individuals enjoy unearned rewards based on their race, sex, sexuality, etc. it requires continued attention through acknowledgment, preening and even self-flagellation – all of which have fueled a polarization over how and whether social identities grant or deny privilege.

This has been accompanied by a shift in the focus of affirmative action from providing equality to promoting equity in the allocation of resources and opportunities needed to achieve an equal outcome. It relies heavily on moral justification for redressing historical injustice without recognizing that the moral right to demand redress fades over time and that perhaps we should focus more on addressing present injustices, rather only about the past and how it affects the present.

In our race-torn country, the evolutionary trajectory of racial remedies and attempts at social engineering must be compared to a World Bank report released March 9 that outlines South Africa, the largest country in the Southern African Customs Union, as “the most unequal country in the world, ranking first out of 164 countries in the World Bank’s Global Poverty Database” .

All attempts by successive governments since 1994 to erase the legacy of apartheid and colonialism have failed to reduce the imbalance between rich and poor, with 3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in a country of 60 million inhabitants.

Also, Thomas Piketty Global Inequality Lab report (2021) shows that while black South Africans have outnumbered whites in the richest 10% of the population for about seven years, the gap between the richest and poorest in South Africa does not has not shrunk and the incomes of the highest blacks have increased significantly as opposed to any increase in wealth for the poorest – who also happen to be largely black.

So what is the answer to our national problem? Is it, as Louis P Pojman, an anti-war and civil rights activist in the 1960s and author of more than 100 philosophical texts asks in a 1998 contribution to the International Journal of Applied Philosophy: “More well-being? More vocational training? More support for education? Permission required from parents to have children? Negative income tax? More support for families or for mothers with young children?

All of these, he argues, have merit and should be part of the national debate. But, as he strives to point out, “A policy [that] is not a legitimate part of the solution…is unfair and reverse discrimination” – no matter how well intentioned.

His thesis is that we should promote equality of opportunity, as much as possible in a free market economy, and reward people according to their individual merit and that by giving people what they deserve as individuals , rather than as members of groups, we show respect for their inherent value.

Instead of moving in the direction suggested by Pojman and despite our extremely high unemployment rate of 46.6%, the ANC government seems determined to introduce job reservation via workplace quotas for foreigners with caps on the number of employees accompanied by bans on employment in certain industrial sectors. In addition, the current Employment Equity Amendment Bill empowers the Minister of Labor to set race-based numerical targets or quotas across the economy.

What began in recent history as an initiative to promote equal opportunities for those who had hitherto been excluded – an undeniably laudable and revolutionary act – has transformed over time, encouraged by proponents of critical race theory and social justice warriors in what Lindsay Bremner, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, describes as the “contradictory space” inhabited by many members of the new elite black woman from South Africa “where the color of money is rapidly replacing skin color as the currency of ostentatious success” and where “acquisivity goes hand in hand with that other inescapable suburban attitude: the lack of curiosity for others “.

Too bad that claim has left behind large swaths of poor black South Africans and other outcasts. The old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions may be relevant here. DM