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South African Whites Say Deck Is Stacked Against Them

Workplace: Many non- blacks complain they are unfairly penalized by affirmative action.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — When the Greater Cape Town morgue started looking for a new superintendent in 2000, police Capt. Ricardo Schouten was convinced he would get the job. A medically trained cop skilled in autopsies, he had already been the acting superintendent for three years.

Furthermore, his experience and police service grade placed him first on a list of potential candidates, the local police union confirmed.

But Schouten, who is white, was passed over. The position was awarded to a less qualified candidate of mixed race, union bosses acknowledged.

Schouten felt betrayed.

"There was not even a call to say, 'Thanks for the past three years,' " said Schouten, who believes he was denied the promotion on racial grounds.

When the government labor court referred him first to the national arbitration commission, Schouten decided to drop the case. He was subsequently assigned to investigate illegal pornography outlets and secondhand shops.

As South Africa grapples to redress the legacy of inequality and prejudice against the country's black majority, many South Africans feel that they are being unfairly penalized.

The affirmative action policies, they charge, have resulted in reverse discrimination against the country's white and other nonblack minorities.

"What has happened here is that an image has been created of a new power system," said Lawrence Schlemmer, the Cape Town-based vice president of the South African Institute of Race Relations. "The image is that in all spheres there is a greater tendency to provide greater opportunity to the formerly disadvantaged, so that the minority is now at a disadvantage."

Critics also argue that affirmative action policies are causing increased racial tension that threatens to derail any progress made toward racial harmony in the eight years since apartheid was demolished.

"The emphasis is by far no longer on reconciliation. The central concept is now transformation," said Koos Malan, an executive member of the Group of 63, a movement of Afrikaner intellectuals. Afrikaners, descendants of 17th century Dutch settlers to southern Africa, represent one of the country's minority groups. The then-ruling Afrikaner National Party instituted apartheid in 1948.

But government officials defend the transformation as being key to South Africa's development as a democracy, and they praise legislation that has been introduced to level the racial playing field and counter discrimination in all areas of society.

Under the former system of apartheid, blacks, who make up 77% of the country's population of 43 million, were relegated to menial and labor-intensive jobs, subjected to legalized racial oppression and denied citizenship. Indians and so-called "coloreds," or people of mixed race, were placed on a higher rung than blacks but were still considered inferior to whites, who make up about 10.5% of the population.

Today, the Employment Equity Act of 1998 seeks to achieve racial equity in the workplace by demanding that all employers with 50 or more workers undertake measures to promote equal opportunity for people from previously disadvantaged communities.

Although there is no officially required quota for such staff, the legislation endorses preferential treatment and numerical goals to ensure equitable representation.

Frans Moatshe, director of employment equity at the Labor Department, said government inspectors regularly drop by companies unannounced to monitor whether they are abiding by affirmative action rules.

The traditionally white-dominated fields of banking, mining and insurance were prime targets of the government inspectors, Moatshe said.

Companies failing to comply with employment equity guidelines after two written warnings face court action and a possible fine of between $50,000 and $90,000, Moatshe said, adding that there is, in general, a high level of compliance, partly enforced by the threat of penalties.

"If you don't comply, the possibility of contracting state services or contracts is low," Moatshe said.

A recently revised Mineral and Petroleum Development Bill will make black economic empowerment a compulsory requirement when granting mining and prospecting permits to private companies.

"Corporations in this country had an opportunity to institute affirmative action the right way, and it is fair to say they failed dismally," Danisa Baloyi, executive director of the National Black Business Caucus, recently told the Sowetan newspaper. "Now they must be made to change."

Detractors, however, charge that black empowerment policies have been a useful tool for the ruling elite to appoint unskilled and inexperienced government cronies in the public and private sector, which they argue could have dire consequences for the economy.

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