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Righting the wrongs?: affirmative action in South Africa and Canada

June 15, 2009

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the downfall of the white male within South Africa. You’ll overhear it in coffee shops, at bars, in restaurants: white men who claim that they are experiencing reverse racism, that they can’t get a job they are adequate skilled for because they are not racially qualified as a black or coloured person. Never mind the irony that such discussions are taking place in upper class areas that are still predominantly white, where these so-called downtrodden men sip lattes and discuss their demise. And there is some truth that in the face of the end of Apartheid, Black Economic Empowerment (South Africa’s version of affirmative action), and other attempts at righting thousands of racial wrongs, white men are less privileged today than their forefathers were decades ago. While this seems almost laughable—it is strikingly obvious that on nearly every level white people, and white men especially, are still enormously powerful and privileged within this country—such talk begs the question: how can equality happen in such a grossly unequal society without making the history oppressed the new privileged, and the historically privileged the new oppressed?

But then this is the question of our generation, isn’t it: how to right the wrongs of our forebearers past, to make up for the extreme oppression created in the wake of (or rather in order to) forming empires and countries, without adversely impacting the social equality of the future. It’s seen with affirmative action in Canada, where First Nations students are picked on for getting a “free ride” to university because the government is attempting to make up for the injustices of the past. While well-intentioned and, I argue, necessary, rather than giving these students a great voice, it defines them as separate from the rest of the student body, and perpetuates the idea that First Nations people must be given a helping hand by the government in order to survive. Ironically, and frustratingly, in allowing for greater opportunities for a historically oppressed group, it simultaneously re-oppresses them by perpetuating racial stereotypes.

The problem is simple, but the solution less so. All of these attempted remedies, whether they be in South Africa or Canada, are, at their core, based on the idea that different groups—those who look different and have a different history—still occupy a different space in society. Despite the recognition that Apartheid happened to all South Africans, and despite the fact that First Nations people are an integral part of Canada’s past, present and future, there is no collective history and no collective identity, but rather a conglomeration of distinct histories and identities, who all experienced the same events (but differently), and live within one border. Until this idea of categorisation is truly eradicated, no social welfare or economic enhancement programme will right these wrongs.

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