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The colour of success: a qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa



A number of studies have shown that white people’s attitudes towards affirmative action are largely negative and ambivalent. This ambivalent opposition to affirmative action has been explained in terms of a commitment to equality and sympathy for the plight of many poor black people, on the one hand, but lingering racial prejudice, intergroup competition and ideological conservatism on the other hand. This study sought to address the paucity of research on black attitudes to affirmative action to determine the nature and range of black attitudes. Since the main explanations of white opposition to affirmative action (anti-black prejudice and intergroup competition) do not apply in the case of blacks, a second aim of this study was to identify factors that could account for opposition to affirmative action among black people. Eight openended interviews were conducted with black academics employed at a historically white university in South Africa. Interviewees spoke about affirmative action in general as well as the role that it had played in their own careers. The results revealed high levels of tension and conflict in the talk about affirmative action, which we characterise as ambivalent support. The prime reason for opposition to affirmative action was the stigma associated with being a (potential) beneficiary of the policy.
TRANSFORMATION 64 (2007) ISSN 0258-7696 112
The colour of success: a qualitative study
of affirmative action attitudes of black
academics in South Africa
Kevin Durrheim with Merridy Boettiger, Zaynab Essack,
Silvia Maarschalk and Chitra Ranchod
A number of studies have shown that white people’s attitudes towards affirmative
action are largely negative and ambivalent. This ambivalent opposition to affirmative
action has been explained in terms of a commitment to equality and sympathy for the
plight of many poor black people, on the one hand, but lingering racial prejudice,
intergroup competition and ideological conservatism on the other hand. This study
sought to address the paucity of research on black attitudes to affirmative action to
determine the nature and range of black attitudes. Since the main explanations of white
opposition to affirmative action (anti-black prejudice and intergroup competition) do
not apply in the case of blacks, a second aim of this study was to identify factors that
could account for opposition to affirmative action among black people. Eight open-
ended interviews were conducted with black academics employed at a historically white
university in South Africa. Interviewees spoke about affirmative action in general as well
as the role that it had played in their own careers. The results revealed high levels of
tension and conflict in the talk about affirmative action, which we characterise as
ambivalent support. The prime reason for opposition to affirmative action was the
stigma associated with being a (potential) beneficiary of the policy.
Affirmative action has been defined (Swain 1996:1) as a ‘range of governmental
and private initiatives that offer preferential treatment to members of
designated racial or ethnic … groups (or to groups thought to be
disadvantaged), usually as a means of compensating them for the effects of
past and present discrimination’. In practice, this compensation involves
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
providing preferential opportunities to members of previously disadvantaged
groups in areas such as hiring, promotions, government contracting, access
to housing, and inclusion in sports teams. Given that affirmative action
advantages one group at the expense of another, often on racial grounds,
it is not surprising that the policy has provoked controversy. Not only does
it raise debates about the official use of racial categorisation, but it also
raises issues of procedural and distributive justice.
A fair body of literature has examined responses of whites to affirmative
action. Historical trends in the United States have shown that in comparison
with increasing levels of support for other race-targeted policies (eg,
desegregation of schools and neighbourhoods), there is consistent
widespread opposition to affirmative action among whites (Schuman et al
1997, Krysan 1998). In addition, evidence suggests that attitudes towards
affirmative action are characterised by ambivalence and duality. Most
Americans view race as a ‘categorical disability deserving of special aid’
(Katz et al 1986:41), but they also blame blacks for their plight, attributing this
to laziness or lack of ambition. Thus, while many support some form of
compensatory programme to help blacks they are opposed to preferential
treatment programmes such as affirmative action (Tuch and Hughes 1996).
This duality of attitudes is expressed in terms of the ‘principle-implementation
gap’ (Durrheim and Dixon 2004). On the one hand, whites endorse the
general principle of integration and racial equality, but on the other hand,
they are opposed to policies such as affirmative action which are designed
to bring about such integration and equality in practice (Schuman et al 1997,
Kim 2000).
A number of different explanations have been offered for this ambivalent
opposition to affirmative action among whites. Building on Blumer’s group
position theory, Bobo (1988, Bobo et al 1997) attributes white opposition to
intergroup competition and conflict. Although whites are aware of and
sympathetic to black disadvantage, as members of a dominant group, they
‘will tend to develop and adopt attitudes and beliefs that defend their
privileged, hegemonic social position’ (Bobo 1988:95). A second explanation
accounts for this opposition in terms of ideological conservatism (Sniderman
and Tetlock 1986). Conservatives subscribe to a free market economy and
thus oppose affirmative action because it involves government intervention.
A third set of authors attribute the opposition to racial prejudice. There are
two different versions of the prejudice hypothesis. Symbolic racism theorists
argue that in order to present themselves as tolerant and egalitarian, whites
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no longer express crude beliefs that characterised old-fashioned racism
(Kinder and Saunders 1996). Nonetheless, vestiges of racial hatred remain
and are expressed in socially-acceptable ways including opposition to the
‘unfair’ advantages of affirmative action (Sears 1988, Sears et al 1997).
Aversive racism theorists argue that liberals believe themselves to be non-
prejudiced but harbour unconscious negative feelings about blacks that are
expressed in subtle, indirect and rationalisable ways, including opposition
to affirmative action (Gaertner and Dovidio 1986, Dovidio and Gaertner
Many of the themes of the quantitative literature are replicated in the
qualitative studies on affirmative action: it is predominantly whites who
have been interviewed; and they have drawn a distinction between affirmative
action in principle and in practice. The qualitative literature provides an
insight into the content of the ambivalence that characterise whites’ attitudes
and beliefs. For example, Kravitz and Van Epps (1995) found that their
interviewees thought that affirmative action would help black people achieve
equal opportunities, but they complained that the programmes were unfair
and discriminated against whites (cf Kravitz et al 1997).
This ambivalent discourse has a defensive quality as whites attempt to
bolster their self-presentation as tolerant non-racist people while at the same
time opposing programmes that are designed to help blacks. They articulate
support for change whilst concurrently struggling against it. Rhetorically,
this is achieved in two related ways. First, arguments against affirmative
action are defended in terms of the principles of justice, equality and
fairness, while affirmative action is portrayed as ‘reverse discrimination’
(Pincus 2001) or ‘reverse apartheid’ (Wambugu 2005). Second, whites
portray themselves as victims of this new reverse discrimination as they
complain about being ‘pushed away’, and denied opportunities they deserve.
In line with the arguments of Sniderman and Tetlock (1986), these
opinions about affirmative action are defended in the terms of conservative
political and economic ideology. The problem is government intervention,
whereas it should be a free-market process, informed by standards of merit,
that dictates the opportunities that individuals either do or do not have.
Merit is viewed as an objective phenomenon (Pincus 2001), and selection
decisions need to be made in a ‘colour-blind’ manner.
In addition to articulating conservatism, the arguments against affirmative
action also betray vestiges of racial prejudice. In portraying blacks as not
deserving or in lacking merit, speakers often unintentionally express negative
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
stereotypes about blacks. Both Franchi (2003) and Wambugu (2005) identify
a strategy of ‘othering’ in arguments against affirmative action. Speakers
portray blacks as dissimilar or opposite to whites, and they stereotypically
construct blacks as being unskilled, inexperienced or incompetent, in
comparison with whites who are being discriminated against by affirmative
action policies.
Finally, as anticipated by Bobo’s (1988) group position theory, the
ambivalent rhetoric with which whites express their opinions about affirmative
action betrays defensiveness about group position. Arguments about the
unfairness of affirmative action in overlooking the merit of whites not only
imply negative stereotypes about blacks, but they also express a set of
expectations about what whites rightly deserve. On the basis of her interviews
about political transformation with white South Africans, Steyn (2001a,
2001b) argued that their views of just deserts, which were developed in
apartheid, now underpin opposition to policies such as affirmative action,
which are viewed as ‘the confiscation of entitlement rather than equalization’
In sum, the qualitative literature shows how whites rationalise opposition
to affirmative action while at the same time denying that they are prejudiced
or racist. Their evaluations of affirmative action have a defensive tone,
informed by a conservative ideology, but articulating implicit racial prejudice
and a sense of group entitlement.
In contrast to the literature on white attitudes to affirmative action, there
is a relative paucity of research on black attitudes. In part, this may be due
to the ideological bias in the social sciences, which has portrayed whites as
active perceivers but blacks as passive targets (Shelton 2000). On the other
hand, this skewed research focus may simply be due to the fact that research
has mostly been concerned to explain opposition to affirmative action, and
it was simply assumed that blacks would generally support the policy.1
There is evidence to suggest that black people, and other beneficiaries
of affirmative action, are generally in favour of the policy. On the basis of
their overview of survey data in the USA, Schuman et al (1997:257) conclude
that there are ‘large racial differences’ and ‘a gulf in attitudes’ with regard
to ‘support for both government expenditures to help blacks and preferential
treatment in favour of blacks’. A poll conducted by CBS News/New York
Times in 1997 indicated that 77 per cent of black Americans, compared to 32
per cent of whites, felt that it is crucial for the workforce in an organisation
to be racially diverse, and more than two-thirds of blacks indicated that
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affirmative action played an important role in their educational or employment
experience (Paul 2003).
Although there is widespread support of affirmative action in the black
community, it is by no means unanimous or unqualified. The historical
review of Schuman et al (1997) indicates that at least 20 per cent of blacks
are opposed to affirmative action, and that this proportion has been slowly
increasing over time. Ayers investigated the perceptions of affirmative
action held by women of colour. The results indicated qualified support:
affirmative action was viewed to be fair, ‘although fairer in principle than in
practice’ (1992:223, emphasis added). Boikhutso’s (2004) study of
perceptions of affirmative action beneficiaries in South African parastatals
showed similar results. There was widespread support for affirmative action,
which was seen as beneficial for the organisation and the economy, as well
as necessary for eradicating discrimination in employment practices in
South Africa. However, the respondents qualified their support, arguing
that the policy would achieve its aims ‘only if it was implemented correctly
and if the necessary support and training is provided to them to help them
meet and exceed their employers’ expectations’ (Boikhutso 2004:v, emphasis
The present study investigated the perceptions of affirmative action
among black people. This focus was chosen not only to address the paucity
of research on black attitudes, but also to investigate some theoretical
questions about the underlying causes of opposition to affirmative action.
As argued above, the explanations of white opposition to affirmative action
have focused on ideological conservatism, anti-black prejudice (symbolic
and aversive racism) and intergroup competition and conflict. It is significant
that these later two explanations do not apply in the case of blacks, who are
less likely to be harbouring prejudice towards themselves (but see Jost et
al 2004); and, in terms of intergroup competition, should support the policy
which gives them a competitive advantage over whites. The possibility that
these two explanations do not apply could certainly be a factor in explaining
widespread support for affirmative action among blacks.
In addition to these theoretical issues, there are many questions remaining
about black opinions. While there are suggestions that blacks give qualified
support for affirmative action, is it possible that black opinion is also marked
by the duality and ambivalence that characterises white attitudes? And if
there is opposition to and ambivalence about affirmative action among black
populations, what could explain this given the non-applicability of the
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
prejudice and intergroup conflict hypotheses? These questions were explored
by means of a qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes among black
members of staff at a historically white university in South Africa.
South African case study
South Africa is characterised by striking social inequality with unemployment
and social ills alarmingly higher for blacks and women (The Presidency
2004); and is ranked 5 out of 112 countries by the 2005 CIA Factbook in terms
of the GINI index of inequality (cf Morse 2004). In 1996 the poorest 20 per
cent of income earners received only 1.5 per cent of the national income while
the wealthiest 10 per cent received 50 per cent of national income (Mboweni
1997). This skewed income distribution favours whites to the detriment of
blacks among whom 65 per cent of Africans, 33 per cent of Coloureds and
2.5 per cent of Indians live in poverty – compared with 1 per cent of whites.
This pattern in inequality is the product of hundreds of years of colonialism,
culminating in apartheid. Since 1948, the National Party government adopted
laws that were specifically designed to marginalise blacks as second class
citizens (see Ashforth 1990). These included the provision of substandard
‘Bantu’ education (Education White Paper 3 1997), as well as the Industrial
Conciliation Act (No. 28) of 1956, which enabled the minister of labour to
reserve categories of skilled and managerial employment for whites (see
Crankshaw 1997).
This legacy of racial inequality continues to be felt today, where white
males continue to dominate management positions, whereas lower-paid and
lower-skilled employment is almost entirely the domain of black people.
Affirmative action in South Africa needs to be appreciated against this
backdrop of state orchestrated inequality. In addition to scrapping apartheid
legislation, the post-apartheid government has instituted a wide range of
affirmative action policies to try to redress past racial and political
discrimination. The new government sought not only to eradicate inequality
by eliminating discrimination, but also by supporting the efforts of blacks
to compete more fairly with historically privileged whites (Mboweni 1997).
Affirmative action in South Africa is supported by the Promotion of
Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (4 of 2000), and the
Employment Equity Act (55 of 1998). These Acts sought to achieve both
demographic transformation and equal opportunity in employment by (a)
eliminating unfair discrimination, (b) implementing affirmative action, and (c)
policing these labour practices in newly established ‘Equality Courts’ (cf
Msimang 2001).
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Since their inception, these policies have been marred by much controversy
and have been the subject of increasing debate and tension. The Towards
a Ten Year Review (The Presidency 2004:41), commissioned by the
government to take stock of transformation in South Africa, notes that
‘empowerment in the workplace is continuing, but very slowly’. This report
highlights that the proportion of black people who are managers, senior
officials and legislators increased from 43 per cent in 1996 to 44.3 per cent
in 2001; and the percentage of professionals, associate professionals and
technicians increased from 58 per cent to 61.4 per cent between 1996 and 2001
(The Presidency 2004). Thus while the legislation has been effective, the
pace of change has been slow. This is also the case at the university under
study, where in 2005 African academic staff made up 17 percent of the staff
profile and Coloureds 2 per cent – compared to Indians who constitute 27
per cent and Whites who constitute 54 per cent of the staff profile (data from
University Equity Office). This is certainly true of the situation in higher
education, where historically white universities now have diverse and
representative student bodies. However, informal segregation remains
apparent among the students body (see Schrieff et al 2005), and the change
in the staff profile continues to lag substantially behind that of student
demographics (Durrheim et al 2004).2 In addition, recurrent press reports of
accusations of racism levelled against university staff and management
suggest that the university culture in these institutions continues to be
unaccommodating to black staff and students.
While change may be slow, the debates around affirmative action are
fierce. Supporters argue that the policies are necessary to ‘normalise’ South
African society, but opponents reject the policy as ineffective and
discriminatory. As discussed above, most of the research has focussed on
opposition to affirmative action by white people, who reject the policy on
ethical and practical grounds, and articulate a sense of exclusion and
discrimination. In the discussion below, we focus on the opinions of a small
sample of black academic staff from one of these transformed, historically
white universities, at which black staff remain a distinct minority.
One-on-one in-depth interviews were conducted with black staff members
at a single South African higher education institution. The aim of the
interviews was to explore the participants’ opinions about affirmative action
and to investigate some theoretical questions about the underlying causes
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
of opposition to affirmative action. Discourse analytic theory, methods and
techniques were used to guide the design of the interviews and the analysis
of the conversations (see Potter and Wetherell 1987, 1994; Potter 1998).
These provide useful tools for investigating the active construction of
affirmative action, focusing on the variability and heterogeneity in accounts.
The sample was comprised of eight black academics, five males and three
females. The sample was purposively selected. An attempt was made to
select a diverse sample of black (African) academics; and thus we selected
individuals of different rank, gender and faculty affiliation. After examining
a directory containing the names and contact numbers of university staff,
potential participants were contacted telephonically and asked if they were
keen to participate in the study. A convenient date and time was then
arranged for an interview with those staff who agreed to participate.
Data collection process
Open-ended semi-structured interviews were conducted with the participants
as informed by Patton’s (1990) ‘general interview guide approach’. The
interviewers were trained Masters students in psychology. Each interview
lasted approximately one hour. The participants were encouraged to speak
about two central issues in the interviews: their understanding of affirmative
action and its impact on society; and the role that affirmative action had
played in their own lives and careers. Prior to being interviewed, the
participants were informed of the nature and purpose of the study and were
asked to sign informed consent forms. They were also invited to raise any
issues or concerns about the interviews with the interviewer or supervising
member of academic staff.
Data analysis
The data consisted of eight tape-recorded and transcribed interviews. The
audio-taped interviews were transcribed verbatim, using interview
conventions that were adapted from Silverman (2000) (see Appendix). A
staged approach to analysis was used. Initially, the transcripts were read and
re-read, and brief notes were made. The emerging themes and key points were
then highlighted. The transcripts were then coded using Nvivo software.
The data were analysed using a general discursive approach (Potter and
Wetherell 1987, 1994; Edwards 2003). Discursive research explores how
people construct their reality through talk. The point is to show how these
constructions work rhetorically to justify opinions and criticise counter
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opinions (Billig 1996). Practically, such analysis entailed a detailed reading
of the transcripts, noting the different ways in which the interviewees
constructed affirmative action, giving it a positive or negative gloss. This
method of analysis was ideal for achieving our research purposes. First, we
sought to describe the content and form of opinions, detailing reasons for
support and opposition, and identifying ambivalence and tension between
support and opposition. Second, we sought to study this complex of
reasons, constructions and tensions, (a) to understand the sources of black
opposition and support for affirmative action, thus allowing us to (b)
compare black with white opinion.
Racial redress: source of support for affirmative action
All interviewees expressed strong support for affirmative action, arguing
that it was necessary to redress the racial inequities produced by apartheid.
Affirmative action was seen as a means to eradicate the legacy of racism in
South Africa, and to provide employment opportunities for the majority who
had been previously disadvantaged.
Extract 1: Interviewee 3 (see Appendix for guide to interview layout and
R: And the first question I’d like to ask is what is do you understand by
the term ‘affirmative action’?
I3: mmm. It sounds like an assignment. Like a question for the test
((laughter)). Well affirmative action is urm (.4) I’d say, a (.8) a way of trying
to redress the, the imbalances of the apartheid system – the way I understand,
in the context of South [Africa
R: [Africa. Yes.
I3: Ja in the South African context. Trying to, to, to, to, to, to redress the
ineq the inequities and inequalities of you know (.) the apartheid system
where white people were privileged, err, they were put in positions and their
positions were protected and black people were discriminated – non-white
people generally, were discriminated against because of who they were, in
the hierarchy of who was important in South Africa.
Extract 2: Interviewee 4
R: Yes. So what do you understand by the term affirmative action?
I4.: (.2) This term (.) my understanding of this term is that (.) it’s (.) it refers
to those people who were disadvantaged during the era of the apartheid
government, those being black people or the people who did not enjoy all
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
the benefits of the government of that day. Now this term is saying (.) let
us try, try and re, redress the imbalances in terms of empowerment and (.)
empowerment in, in urm all its spheres. It says let us try and correct the
imbalances, in other words (.), you will be an affirmative, an affirmation
person if you were disadvantaged during the previous era.
Extract 3: Interviewee 7
R: …So could you tell me what do you understand by the term affirmative
I7: …my understanding of affirmative action is (.) where you are trying to::
correct an imbalance ah:: (R: yes) in an employment situation.
Extract 4: Interviewee 5
R: What do you understand by the term affirmative action?
I5: (.2) Um (.1) I understand it to mean (.3) uh (.7) an employment (.1) policy
(.1) where (.3) where people who where previously disadvantaged (.3) are
encouraged to be (.1) employed (.2) and (.2) unlike in the past.
R: So kind of getting, getting previously disadvantaged people (.) back
into the
(.1) work place?
I5: Yes, yes, it is a [principle
R: [Ja
I5: Its hanging on the principle to give everybody a chance.
Extract 5: Interviewee 1
R: First I’d like to just start off by asking what do you understand by the
term affirmative action?
I1: (.3) Um, I think for me (.2) affirmative action is, is, is basically about
understanding the (.4) our, our, our, our context, our current South African
context but also the past (.) um and then understanding the fact that there
were (.1) I think the past then informs the, the current situation (R: yes) in
the sense that you got to know in the past people were consciously um not
allowed or (.3) um indirectly not encouraged to, to do or be able to, to achieve
or take certain positions in life. And, and, and my understanding of affirmative
action is that it creates a (.1) like (.1) what do you call it in sports um (.3) um,
um (.4) (R: um equal opportunity) it’s more about uuh like restructuring it’s
like what do they call it? I can’t remember it’s (.1) (R: Development?) Not
necessarily, it’s basically actually saying that um as long (.1) the current
situation cannot actually be allowed to continue because it’s not truly
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representative of our of our (.2) South African society and therefore goes
against everything else that we value (.1) our constitution, bill of rights (.1)
the struggle that people fought and died for you know.
The extracts above all come from the start of the interviews, where participants
were asked to communicate their understandings of affirmative action,
which they all did in very similar ways. Affirmative action was defined as a
process of achieving collective redress, targeting groups variously
constructed as ‘disadvantaged’, ‘black’ or ‘non-white’. Respondents
maintained that redress is an important corrective action taken to remedy
past systemic imbalance and the inequalities experienced by the majority of
black South Africans. Racial redress is generally perceived as positive as
it will inevitably lead to the ‘empowerment’ of the previously disadvantaged.
In this way affirmative action is seen as a means of reparation.
The accounts of affirmative action supplied above are general textbook-
like definitions. This is apparent in Extract 1, where I3 likens the task of
providing her ‘understandings’ with a university test or assignment. The
required response is a ‘correct’ answer. There is convergence in these
‘correct’ answers across interviewees. The need for affirmative action is
understood in historical context with references made to apartheid, past
imbalances and inequalities. The definitional response rests on a distinction
between previously advantaged and disadvantaged racial groups and is
interlaced with current political terminology. Redress is perceived as a
means to bring this previously unbalanced system back to normality (Extract
2).These definitions of affirmative action refer to the effects of apartheid and
the need for redress for people generally, and not specific individuals,
including themselves. Nonetheless, this talk about history, race and
disadvantage sets terms of reference which clearly separate black from white
opinion. As beneficiaries of affirmative action – both in terms of present
opportunities and the eradication of racism – blacks support affirmative
action as redress in a way that whites could not. However, much like the white
opinion reviewed earlier, despite this positive view of affirmative action as
redress, interviewees identified practical limitations of the policy. No sooner
had they endorsed affirmative action, than they qualified their responses by
identifying interrelated problems with affirmative action.
Sources of opposition to affirmative action
While good in theory or as a matter of principle, the participants expressed
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
a number of reservations about the potential for affirmative action to bring
about redress in practice. The first problem is that the masses are ill-
equipped to satisfy the basic requirements and expectations in the labour
market and thus cannot benefit. In the end, then, a small class of privileged
black people benefit from affirmative action. The second problem is that
white business owners strategically appoint black staff as ‘tokens’ to
positions they are ill-equipped for, thus retaining power in the economy.
Extract 6: Interviewee 1
R: So in your view do you think affirmative action is still needed today?
I1: Oh ja, I think, I think we definitely (.), we definitely need it (.3). But when
we think of affirmative action I mean what really, what honestly comes to
mind (.) to me (.) and that, all the assumptions that are not based on that poor
(.1) uneducated group (.2) That for me is the issue (.1) So it’s useful and it’s
important (.1) but I’m not sure how it impacts (.1) on that and because I’m
not sure (.) how that actually happens all that I can see I that its setting people
up against each other (.2) in the long run (.2) um.
R: You mean black people?
I1: Ja, I’m meaning black African people (R: ok) ja ’cause I mean there are
some people who are doing so well and some who are not doing well (.1) who
will never do well (.1) because they have never received education (.) and
then people will then say you know (.) now you can get educated (.2) (R: yes)
just because I am educated (.) than the child of a person who was never
educated. So (.1) you see this thing carries over right through persons,
cultures, everything that is in calculated within family. And my view (.) is
that somehow for me affirmative action touches a certain group (.1) which
is important (.1) important, very important but the majority (.2) of South
Africans are not being touched by it (.2)
Extract 7: Interviewee 3
R: Do you think there are any negatives of affirmative action?
I3: Ja, I think there are, there are negatives of affirmative action because
well, I’m not sure if they are negatives but the perception, even amongst
black people that only a few, you know this BEE ((ie, Black Economic
Empowerment)) thing (R: yes, yes) that only a few are benefiting (.1) the very
same people are benefiting from affirmative action policies because you get
the same person moving from this job to that job to that job you know, and
then you ask yourself what happens to the [rest
R: [rest
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I3.: So (.) I think the gap is widening even amongst the black people=
R: = Community, ja
I3: There’s now, there’s now. Previously there was the race thing, now
it’s the class thing. Because you’ve got black people who’ve really succeeded
because of policies of affirmative action but then there’s a gap between the
successful black person and the unsuccessful black or the poor is widening
(R: yes, yes). So, in a sense I think that that’s a negative of, of affirmative
Extract 8: Interviewee 4
R: Some people may say (.) that affirmative action has just helped the
haves of the black community get better jobs and move up (.) the corporate
ladder while the people who don’t have after 10 years of affirmative action.
What’s your view on this?
I4: It’s true (1) that it works like that. But we need to think beyond that
(R: mmmmm). You cannot say, you cannot go to a, a, a goat herder and say
‘I am now going to give you the opportunity to drive an aeroplane’ (R: yes).
A goat herder who’ll say ‘are you (.), are you serious about this’ he will say
‘yes’ but you are running a risk because a goat herder has not had an
opportunity, maybe he doesn’t even have a matric (R: yes), let alone
mathematics. But now you want to go to the person who will understand
mathematics for this particular person to be a pilot (R: mmhmm) and that is
going to be a person who at least haves something by then. You are saying
to this particular person, let’s start from where you are and upwards. And
there’s nothing wro::ng with that (R: y:es) because you want this thing to
Extract 9: Interviewee 2
R: What do you think some of the negatives are (.) of affirmative action?
I2: Ok, in the minds (.) ((Laughter)) of (.2) some black people (R: Yes) they
just think (.) being black is a password (R: Ok) (.2) of (.) getting into jobs (R:
Ok). So as a black person (.) I would like to say (.1) or maybe confirm (.) that
(.1) it isn’t. It has to be coupled (.) with something else. These are negatives
(.1) (R: Yes) negatives being that people have misunderstood it (R: Ok).
Taken as a whole, the attitudes expressed by our interviewees had the same
duality and ambivalence that characterises the attitudes of whites toward
affirmative action. This is clearly seen in Extract 6, where the opening
positive evaluation of affirmative action – ‘we definitely need it’ – is
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
immediately limited using the now-familiar ‘yes but, …’ formulation of the
disclaimer (see Billig 1988).
Despite the fact that black attitudes toward affirmative action reveal a
similar ‘principle-implementation gap’ that characterises white attitudes, the
sources of opposition to affirmative action are fundamentally different in the
case of these black interviewees. White opposition is grounded in an
interrelated set of concerns about individual merit, institutional standards,
and the fairness of selection decisions which exclude whites. In contrast, the
sources of black opposition to affirmative action revolve around the inability
of the policy to achieve racial redress in practice.
The interviewees reported a number of different but interrelated problems
with the way in which the affirmative action policies were being implemented.
A fundamental problem was that rather than reducing inequalities in society
as intended, affirmative action was seen to be simply changing the
demographic profile of privilege. The fault lines of inequality were shifting
from race to class: ‘previously there was the race thing, now it’s the class
thing’ (extract 7), while the ‘poor uneducated group’, ‘the majority of South
Africans’ and ‘the poor’ continue to be denied opportunities and are
marginalised. Moreover, echoing official statistics, a number of interviewees
observed that the gap between the ‘haves and have-nots’ in society had
actually even widened. The concern, therefore, was that affirmative action,
rather than effecting redress, might be exacerbating the problem of inequality.
The practice of affirmative action was failing against its own criteria.
The failure of affirmative action to achieve redress in practice is attributed
to constraints in institutional and social reality, the demands of the job
market, which limit what is possible. Theoretically, to achieve equality,
redress implies taking the most disadvantaged people, providing them with
a quality education and the necessary support, thus equipping them for the
world of work. However, in practice, the affirmed must possess the
qualifications and skills to satisfy employment criteria. As I4 argued, you
cannot simply take a goat herder and say ‘I’m going to give you the
opportunity to drive an aeroplane’ (Extract 8). The principle of affirmative
action bumps up against reality and must defer to the demands of merit,
standards, qualifications and experience. These are the same demands that
whites base their opposition of affirmative action on.
A consequence of these constraints is that it is only middle-class black
people, who have been able to afford a good education, who are the true
beneficiaries of affirmative action. A select group of individuals from the
Kevin Durrheim
black community can ‘get better jobs and move up the corporate ladder’
(Extract 8). This then opens the door to another set of problems with
affirmative action: it encourages and rewards self-serving individuals who
believe that ‘being black is a password’ for getting jobs (Extract 9). White
business then exploits this, making token appointments who end up
reaffirming the racial stereotypes and entrenching the marginalisation of
blacks in institutional life.
Extract 10: Interviewee 8
R: Okay um:: what has been the impact of affirmative action on society?
I8: You mean beginning when (.1) beginning in 1652?
R: No now today today’s society
I8: Affirmative action has never really been meaningfully implemented
even in those cases where they identify um so called um: affirmative action
candidates (R: yes) those people are used for window dressing um:: they
maybe called when there’s (.1) important meetings so as to show the world
what we have got so for me.
Extract 11: Interviewee 1
R: Ok, um in what ways can affirmative action be made to be more
I1: (.1) Eh that’s a difficult one ((laughter)), that’s a difficult one (.2). Um
(.6) you see (.3) I don’t know if it can be made to be more effective because
I mean the the the other reality is (.1) that affirmative action is being use (.2)
can be used (.2) manipulated for (.) for example in terms of fronting (.2). Um
(.2), um where you just put black faces (.1). Because when you’re in board
meetings they just say yes (.2) and they’re pathetically forever grateful for
putting them in those positions (.1) and therefore they don’t belong or
change the system (.1).
In Extract 10, I8 traces the origin of affirmative action back to 1652, the year
(when van Riebeek landed) often associated with the start of colonialism in
South Africa. Implicitly, then, affirmative action is viewed as a mechanism
of the production of inequality. As it is applied today, it takes the form of
window dressing, showcasing ‘so-called affirmative action candidates’, but
not effecting meaningful change. Criticism is levelled against the institutions
manipulating affirmative action to their own ends, employing black people
as fronts to satisfy racial quotas and to provide a good impression of
inclusion. Criticism is also levelled against individual beneficiaries of
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
affirmative action. Together the instrumental institutions and the obsequious
yes-sayers ensure that meaningful change in power relations and levels of
black inclusion and participation are not achieved.
In sum, the black participants in this study expressed what we can term
qualified support for affirmative action. Their support for the principle of
affirmative action was moderated by practical concerns grounded in a view
of the constraints of social and institutional reality, dictated by standards
and merit; and in stereotypes of black individuals using affirmative action
to service their own self-interest. In all these ways black attitudes were
remarkably similar to the white attitudes discussed in the introduction of this
article. On the other hand, both the sources of support and opposition to
affirmative action articulated by our participants differed fundamentally
from the attitudes of whites reviewed earlier. Our interviewees supported
affirmative action as a mechanism to achieve racial redress, to remove
inequality in practice. In contrast with whites’ prime concern with procedural
fairness, our black participants were primarily interested in ends, and
criticised the policy for failing to eradicate the inequalities of apartheid in
Personal narratives: being a subject of affirmative action
After the interviewees provided a general understanding of affirmative
action and identified the problems associated with this policy, they faced the
question of its impact on their own careers. Responses were noticeably
different from the talk around the collective nature of affirmative action,
which had been communicated with relative ease.
Extract 12: Interviewee 7
R: Okay what effect has affirmative action had on your career?
I7: (.1) None I’ve never had ah: I’ve never been (.3) promoted or:: for well
in terms of affirmative action or had anything
R: So it hasn’t had any effect on your career or you as a black lecturer in
South Africa? I7:
No I don’t think so (.1) as far as I’m concerned I was employed on merit and
promoted on merit I’m still:: doing things on merit.
Extract 13: Interviewee 8
R: Okay um: what effect has affirmative action had on your career?
I8: Me? R:
Yes I8:
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How is affirmative action as you understand it now had an impact on my
career nothing (.2) I can tell you this is between you and me I graduated as
a top honours student at University X on top of my class ((banging pen on
desk)) (R: yes) I’ve been to overseas the universities (.) prestigious ones
those are things I achieved on my own.
Extract 14: Interviewee 2
R: Ja, has it had on your career (.2), do you think?
I2: (.2) You know I don’t particularly believe that (.2) ((Laughter)) the job
I have (.2) I got it only because of affirmative action (.2). Whilst (.1) ok I,
because I now know (.1) about that (.) uh Equity (1) Employment Act (.1) I
now know that (.1) if I am, I’m black (.2) and I am appointed (.2), there’s a white
that is also appointed (.2) (R: Yes). The black person (.) has (.1), is the one
that is offered the job (.), ok. So I think that (.1), I’m not sure (.), for example
(.), if you’re asking about my career? (R: Yes) So I don’t know (.1) the other
people that (.) I was (.) perhaps competing with, I really don’t know (.2) (R:
Yes). But I think (.) it must have had an effect (.2) it must have. (.2) I was a
black woman (.1) uh finished a PhD (.1) so (.) and I think (.) using affirmative
action and the Employment Equity Act then I think that gave me an
advantage (R: Ok). Although (.) I don’t know who my other (.) competitors
As a policy aimed at social redress, interviewees articulated their generally
favourable attitudes to affirmative action with relative ease, indicating wide
levels of support for the principle, but identifying problems with
implementation. In contrast, as extracts 12 to 14 show, personal narratives
of the role that affirmative action played in their careers were characterised
by numerous pauses, hesitations, repairs, and laughter, which together
suggest a lack of conversational ease. In extract 13, I8 appears to be
surprised by the turn of conversation, first asking (in line 2) whether the
question applies to his career, and then (in line 4) repeating the question
before answering. Overall, there was a distinct sense that the interviewees
either experienced trouble or were uncomfortable with talking about the
possible impact that affirmative action had had on their own careers.
In some contrast to these displays of discomfort or dis-ease, their
answers were unequivocal statements that affirmative action does not apply
in their cases. This was achieved through a strategy we have termed
defensive credentialing. Defensive credentialing refers to the interviewees’
emphatic use of their credentials and qualifications to indicate that affirmative
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
action does not apply in their case. In extract 12, I7 states categorically that
affirmative action had ‘never’ played a role in his career, but that he had been
employed and promoted purely on the grounds of merit. The speakers in
extracts 13 and 14 adumbrate what accounts for merit in their instances. I8
graduated top of his honours class and had attended prestigious overseas
universities – things he emphasises (banging on the desk) that he had
achieved on his own. While I2 conceded that, being a black woman,
affirmative action policies may have influenced her appointment, she was
quick to point out that, having finished her PhD, she was suitably qualified
for the position.
By means of this defensive credentialing, the interviewees distanced
themselves from the collective (those in need of redress). Defensive
credentialing entailed portraying oneself as an exception to the rule that
black people are in need of preferential treatment. Affirmative action does
not apply in their instances because they have achieved their current status
on merit, having impeccable academic credentials. This way of talking
stands in marked contrast to the qualified support the interviewees had
given to affirmative action as a general policy. Whereas they had previously
spoken with a sense of solidarity as black people, supporting affirmative
action, now they portrayed themselves as exceptions, unlike other black
people, and distancing themselves from affirmative action.
Together, the discomfort displayed in talk about affirmative action in their
own careers and the credentialing strategy show that the interviewees were
on the defensive as they spoke about the possibility that the opportunities
they had enjoyed or their current positions were obtained because of
affirmative action. We might ask why this defensiveness? Following Billig
(1996), we can interrogate this from the perspective of the rhetoric of
opinions, that every attitude in favour of a position is also an attitude against
some counter position. What are the interviewees arguing against with their
defensive credentialing? In the section below we suggest that they are
arguing against the applicability to them of the stereotype that blacks are
lacking in merit. They are reluctant to subscribe to the stigmatised category
of affirmative action candidates or workers.
The stigma of affirmative action
Affirmative action stigma refers to negative beliefs and perceptions about
those who are (or assumed to be) beneficiaries of affirmative action. To a
large extent, the interviewees’ defensiveness about being beneficiaries of
affirmative action can be seen as a way of deflecting stigma.
Kevin Durrheim
Extract 15: Interviewee 3
R: As an affirmative action appointee and your colleagues around you,
do they view you differently from people who just come in through normal
I3: I don’t know. I, I don’t know. I wish I knew. But (.) um, (.) what do
I say? Well I haven’t had any direct, you know?
R: Perhaps your ideas on how others would view other people who were?
I3: Well I know that, uh, I mean that amongst people who are not black
there’s always this stigma of oh, she’s an affirmative action appointee
therefore she doesn’t have what it takes, you know. She doesn’t deserve
to be here. I definitely know that there’s, there’s that general feeling.
Extract 16: Interviewee 8
R: And how do you think others would react to them knowing that they
were an affirmative action appointee? (.) how other people would treat them,
react to them?
I8: It’s very problematic because (.) if if you have a person who was
appointed as a so called affirmative action candidate (R: yes) and that person
didn’t have (.) was not appointed on merit (R: yes) (.) I think some people
within the system will look down upon them which will jeopardise their
confidence and self-esteem and that type of picture (R: yes) (.) I can’t see
them lasting long in in that particular organisation.
Extract 17: Interviewee 5
I5: You ask, I uh ask myself, (.3) uh. See its its uh uh, it’s a very difficult
situation. But, I think (.) that if you have some (.1) some confidence in
yourself, (.1) uh of uh of what you think you know and what you can offer,
before the affirmative action plays in to your mind, then its better.
R: Yes
I5: But, if the affirmative action came first, in your mind, (.1) its its its like
you have to be apologetic for what you are getting, because you have to
prove to [people,
R: [yes
I5: That it wasn’t only because of affirmative action
R: ja
I5: ja its not easy.
Extract 18: Interviewee 5
R: Yes, and also, access this idea of where people are feeling stigmatised
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
and how we can eradicate this and get this out into the open (.1)
I5: Yes.
R: Because it seems to be such a disabling thing to feel [that
I5: [I tell you its one of
the worst things that can happen to you. As someone put it sometime back,
its like (.6) its like ja, its like having to expla:::::in all people all the time why
you chose to marry the person you married. Rather than enjoy the uh uh the
marriage, you are working hard to to explain, no no I truly love her, even
though she had money, even though she was from a big family, the only thing
that attracted me to her was uh the true love. But people don’t look at that.
They look at, (.) they look at, ahh look at this man and the lady with the money.
R: Yes
I5: Ja, so explaining yourself over and over, that’s exactly what, how I
think. Its an example of the same thing. Where you feel that you have got
R: Ja
I5: You have got pressure to prove that it wasn’t for those reasons that
you uh, were employed. Because it will only, that reason that you were
Extract 19: Interviewee 1
R: So is it ((being an affirmative action appointee)) almost a threat to your
I1: A threat to your, to your self esteem (.3) to your confidence um (.3).
Extract 20: Interviewee 8
R: Okay (.) um: what are some of the positives of affirmative action? Is
there any positives in your view?
I8: (.3) Uh: I, I really don’t know I can talk about the, the [negatives
R: [Negatives okay
I8: The main negative thing is every black person now gets ah branded
an affirmative action candidate (R: yes) uh:: without really looking at the (.2)
the achievements of those people and how they got to be where they are::
The question of whether affirmative action candidates are employed (1)
because they qualify for the position because they are black or (2) because
they qualify for the position and they are black is an area of contention
across interviews. Interviewees pointed out that it is often assumed that
Kevin Durrheim
black employees occupy positions simply because they are black. This
implies not only that the success of black people is attributable to unfair
advantages they get by virtue of their being black, but also that black people
generally are lacking in merit. This stigma of affirmative action spreads to all
black employees, who have to contend with the perception that ‘she’s an
affirmative action appointee and therefore she doesn’t have what it takes’
(Extract 15). Affirmative action becomes a means of stereotyping black
people as incompetent, as ‘every black person now gets branded an
affirmative action candidate’ (Extract 20).
These stereotypes about incompetent affirmative action beneficiaries
work hand in glove with older, cruder and now unutterable stereotypes
about the laziness and intellectual inferiority of black people. First, the
stereotypes about incompetent affirmative action beneficiaries do the same
work of portraying blacks as unqualified for jobs that whites should do; and
second the unuttered stereotypes about blacks intelligence and work ethic
helps to bolster the notion that affirmative action appointments are made
because of skin colour rather than merit.
The stigma of affirmative action is infectious and ambiguous. Simply
being black means that you will feel stigmatised as an incompetent affirmative
action employee (Extract 18). There will be a ‘general feeling’ that you don’t
deserve to have your job (Extract 15). Like all stereotypes, the idea that black
employees are incompetent affirmative action beneficiaries is difficult to
shrug. The stereotype is impossible to disprove. As I5 argues, a black person
proving that they obtained their employment on merit is like trying to prove
that you married a wealthy spouse out of love for her and not her money. It
is impossible to remove the doubt from the minds of others, and so likewise
questions about competence continue to hang over the heads of black
In a manner similar to that described by stereotype threat theory (Steele
1997; Steel et al 2002), it appeared as though the mere presence of the
activated stereotype had an adverse effect on the self concept and even the
behaviour of black employees. As they feel that their colleagues ‘look down
upon them’ they will experience threats to their self-confidence and self-
esteem, and in a way that confirms the stereotype, they will eventually fail
and leave the organisation (see Extract 16, 19). As a black employee,
affirmative action stigma is ‘disabling’ (Extract 18) and ‘plays in to (sic) your
mind’ as you have the impossible task of trying to ‘prove to people’ that you
are qualified and competent (Extract 17).
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
In the light of these concerns about affirmative action stigma, we are in
a better position to appreciate why these interviewees dis-identify with the
affirmative action label despite their general support for affirmative action
as a policy. They use defensive credentialing to portray themselves as
exceptions to the rule of incompetence, while the rule continually comes
back to haunt them. Being ‘branded’ an affirmative action appointment is
stigmatising, or ‘deeply discrediting’ to use Goffman’s (1963:13) formulation.
Thus, while interviewees initially framed affirmative action as positive,
necessary and empowering they were reluctant to be ‘branded’ as such.
Previous research on affirmative action has focussed mainly on the attitudes
of white people, which have been found to be ambivalent, but generally
unfavourable. White respondents typically support the principle of helping
disadvantaged black people, but oppose affirmative action on practical and
ethical grounds as a form of reverse discrimination, leading to the reduction
of standards. This exploratory study sought to investigate whether similar
ambivalent attitudes would be prevalent in a small sample of black academic
staff at a South African university.
The talk about affirmative action by the interviewees was equivocal and
peppered with ambivalence. This was reflected in the tensions and conflicts
evident throughout and across the interviews. The talk relating to affirmative
action evidenced a duality between the principles and the actual
implementation of affirmative action policies. Interviewees reported that
principally, redress was one of the most important purposes of affirmative
action. They confidently argued for the necessity of affirmative action as
a means of levelling the playing field to create equal opportunities to
previously disadvantaged groups and to eradicate racism. However, after
their initial optimism, they identified interrelated practical problems with the
implementation of these policies, which were argued to benefit those already
advantaged, and was exploited by self-interested individual beneficiaries
and companies who employed them as ‘window dressing’.
This was the first source of opposition to affirmative action among this
black sample: in practice, because of the requirements and standards of the
job market, the policy of affirmative action could not achieve the aim of
redress, but continued to re-produce the class-based but deeply racial
inequalities of the past. The second source of opposition to affirmative
action has roots in the stigma associated with being a (possible) beneficiary
Kevin Durrheim
of the policy. The interviewees adopted a defensive stance when talking
about the role that affirmative action had played in their own careers, being
unwilling to see themselves as beneficiaries of the policy. The reason for this
defensiveness was clear: being seen as an affirmative action appointee is
stigmatising or deeply discrediting, being associated with the erstwhile
racist stereotypes of incompetence and lack of qualification.
In sum, it was apparent that the overall structure and content of the
attitudes of this black sample had remarkable similarities to the attitudes of
the white samples reported in the literature. Structurally, the attitudes were
characterised by duality, ambivalence and conflict, containing both themes
of support for and opposition to affirmative action. The duality took the form
of the principle-implementation gap as the interviewees supported the
principle of affirmative action but opposed it in practice. In addition to this
attitudinal structure, our black sample also opposed affirmative action on
similar grounds to white samples. First, both sets of attitudes are informed
by what we could term capitalist realism: affirmative action is unworkable
because it contradicts the demands of the market, which has objective skill
requirements. This view underpins whites’ concerns about lowering
standards, and our black interviewees’ concerns that, in practice, affirmative
action will continue to favour those individuals who had already been
advantaged. Second, both sets of attitudes are informed by negative
stereotypes about the competencies of affirmative action beneficiaries and,
by association, black employees. Whites are concerned about the unfairness
of employing less qualified and incompetent black people in place of (better
qualified, more competent) whites; whereas our black interviewees were
concerned about themselves being seen as less qualified and incompetent
affirmative action appointments.
Despite these similarities, there were also fundamental differences between
black participant’s attitudes and white attitudes reported in the literature.
Whereas whites oppose affirmative action because of what they perceive as
unfair discrimination against them, our interviewees were primarily concerned
with the inability of the policy to bring about redress in practice. They
supported the policy as a means of eradicating the legacy of racism and
opposed the policy to the extent that it could not achieve these aims in
practice. While white opposition is grounded in an interrelated set of
concerns about individual merit, institutional standards, and the fairness of
selection decisions which exclude whites, the sources of black opposition
to affirmative action revolve around the inability of the policy to achieve
A qualitative study of affirmative action attitudes of black academics in South Africa
racial redress in practice. A second fundamental difference between white
and black opinion concerns relates to anti-black stereotypes that underlies
affirmative action stigma. Whereas whites articulate such stereotypes in
arguing against what they perceive to be the unfairness of black appointments,
our black interviewees articulated a concern with being seen, in terms of
these stereotypes, as incompetent affirmative action appointees.
Although the data do not warrant definitive conclusions, we are now in
a position to reflect on the underlying explanations of opposition to
affirmative action. Recall that there were three explanations of whites’
opposition to affirmative action: (1) group interest in maintaining privilege,
(2) ideological conservatism opposing government intervention, and (3)
anti-black prejudice. The results of this study suggest that group interest
factors do also shape black attitudes. Our interviewees all articulated an
unreserved support for affirmative action as a mechanism of redress,
eradicating the legacy of racism and the disadvantages faced by blacks.
Given the different positions as groups advantaged and disadvantaged by
the policy, it is not surprising that group interest factors motivated support
for affirmative action by blacks, but opposition by whites.
The results of this study also suggest that two sets of ideological factors
may shape opposition to affirmative action. First, ideological conservatism
does appear to play a role. Like white research participants, our interviewees’
arguments against the ability of affirmative action to work in practice were
informed by (what we have termed) capitalist realism: the belief that the
policy is doomed to failure because government intervention could not
supplant the demands of the market. Second, although it is clearly not the
case that anti-black prejudice underpinned opposition to affirmative action
among our black interviewees, it was apparent that their concerns about
affirmative action stigma were informed by similar stereotypes about (black)
incompetence that are the foundation of white attitudes.
Although black and white attitudes each reflect their different position
as those advantaged or disadvantaged by affirmative action, what unites
them are two sets of ideological beliefs that inform them – about the demands
of the capitalist market, and stereotypes about black employees.
1. Durrheim and Dixon (2005) have made a similar argument regarding the relative
paucity of literature investigating black attitudes toward desegregation.
2. In one historically white university studied by Durrheim et al (2004), the staff
demographic profile in 1994 was 15 per cent black staff and 65 per cent white
Kevin Durrheim
staff, whereas eight years later, in 2002, it had changed to 21 per cent black and
51 per cent white.
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Appendix: transcript conventions
[ Left brackets indicate the point at which a current speaker’s talk is
overlapped by another’s talk.
= Equal signs, one at the end of a line and one at the beginning, indicate no gap
between the two lines.
(4) Numbers in parenthesis indicate elapsed time in silence in seconds.
(.) A dot in a parenthesis indicates a tiny gap, probably no more than one-tenth
of a second.
___ Underscoring indicates some form of stress, via pitch or amplitude.
:: Colons indicate the prolongation of a sound. The length of the row of colons
indicates the length of the prolongation.
- Refers to a break or change indirection within a sentence.
(word) Parenthesised words have been used to indicate the point at which one
speaker makes comments within the other’s speech eg (R: Ja).
(( )) Double parentheses contain the author’s descriptions rather than
transcriptions, eg ((laughter)).
( ) Empty parentheses indicate the transcriber’s inability to hear what was said.
... Firstly, there is relative lack of research that qualitatively examines AA in South Africa, and even less from within the discursive tradition (Durrheim, Boettiger, Essack, Maarschalk & Ranchod, 2007;Durrheim & Dixon, 2005). Furthermore, much of the research in this area tends to be one-sided in that it is largely focused on the perceptions of white South Africans. ...
... Most research focuses on race and race relations, prejudice and, amongst other things, modern racism -all largely focused on identifying the pervasive repertoires and devices that are used by people to justify social inequalities (e.g. Augustinos & Every, 2007;Duncan, 2003Durrheim et al., 2007Durrheim & Dixon, 2005;Franchi, 2003;Potter, 1996;Van Dijk, 1993;Wetherell, Stiven & Potter, 1987;Wetherell, Taylor & Yates, 2001). Apart from the content, however, these related studies are particularly useful in that they illustrate how language use performs social actions that construct varying versions of the world . ...
Full-text available
Orientation: Apartheid in South Africa constructed racial, economic, social and political segregation, the consequences of which are still experienced today. Government has made concerted efforts to ‘deracialise’ South Africa, most notably through affirmative action (AA) measures.Research purpose: This study aimed to explore employees’ social constructions of AA in a South African organisation.Motivation for the study: Research in this field focuses mostly on attitudinal perspectives of AA with an emphasis on traditional approaches. Subjective, contextualised approaches to AA have received little attention. Thus, this study aimed to critically engage with the embodied nature of prejudice, particularly in reference to how we understand and experience AA.Research approach, design and method: This study aimed to explore AA from a social constructionist orientation, using semi-structured interviews. More specifically, this study used Potter and Wetherell’s discursive psychology.Main findings: The findings illustrate how participants engage in discursive devices that continue to rationalise a racial order of competence. Ultimately, AA is a controversial subject that traverses many segments of life for all South Africans.Practical/managerial implications: The findings contribute to the discipline of industrial psychology, particularly with regard to policies around preferential treatment, and can add value to the ways in which organisational policy documents are conceptualised. The findings also suggest the importance of developing an inclusive, non-discriminatory organisational culture.Contribution/value-add: This approach adds to the existing body of knowledge around the embodied nature of prejudice. The study’s methodology highlights the value of studying context in meaning-making and implied inferences that underlie talk.
... In an effort to achieve transformation in all sectors of society, the newly elected African National Congress mandated workplace integration through law. The Employment Equity Act (1998) and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (2000) collectively 'sought to achieve both demographic transformation and equal opportunity in employment by (a) eliminating unfair discrimination, (b) implementing affirmative action, and (c) policing these labour practices in newly established 'Equality Courts' " (Durrheim, 2007:117). The Employment Equity Act explains affirmative action as a way to redress the disadvantages in employment that designated groups iii have experienced, by achieving equitable representation in all occupational categories and levels in the workforce (Alexander, 2007:94). ...
This study explored the use of affirmative action as a tool for transformation in the mainstream English-language press in South Africa through a case study at The Durban Post . It seeks to understand the extent to which the newspaper has transformed its staff, coverage and readership in the eyes of its reporters and editors. Additionally, this paper investigates staff views on the implementation of affirmative action in their workspace and this policy's potential to impact on transformation. Observation, interviews and document analysis were used for data collection. This study finds that though The Durban Post's staff has transformed to some extent, the majority of staff members interviewed feel that the paper has yet to achieve significant transformation of coverage, readership and power structure, due to societal and internal systematic factors.
... Finally, a qualitative study of attitudes towards AA among eight black academics by Durrheim et al. (2007) found strong support for the policy as a means of racial redress, tackling inequalities and creating opportunity for the disadvantaged. Concerns were nonetheless raised about practical implementation problems, including the view that AA is benefitting educated, middle-class black South Africans while failing to create opportunities for the marginalized majority, thus perpetuating class-based inequality. ...
Full-text available
Since its introduction, affirmative action has become an increasingly controversial policy to address labour market inequalities in South Africa. Yet, in spite of this public debate, nationally representative, empirical research on patterns of opposition to and support for the redress policy remains relatively circumscribed. In this article, attitudinal data collected over the past decade is employed to examine the factors that influence these perceptions, and the extent to which they have been changing. The results reveal that attitudes to race- and gender-based affirmative action in employment have been favourable on aggregate over the last decade. The specified beneficiary of affirmative action appears to matter, with more positive evaluations evident when the policies target women and disabled persons than when racial disadvantage is targeted. Furthermore, while there is a broad-based, resolute belief in racial equality in principle, there is less agreement on the implementation of particular redress policies. Affirmative action for instance enjoys less support than compensatory policies or those focused on addressing class-based disadvantage. An element of self-interest appears to be informing evaluations among designated beneficiary groups, with black respondents more inclined than other population groups to support race-based affirmative action and women more partial to gender-based affirmative action than men. While the beneficiaries of affirmative action have typically been the better educated and skilled among the designated groups, highest support for this policy is reported by the more marginalized and vulnerable who are least likely to have personally benefitted from affirmative action implementation to date. This support may reflect a sense of collective self-interest or possibly an expectation that this redress policy will bring benefits in the future. Finally, views on whether affirmative action is producing a more skilled workforce and socially cohesive society are again broadly positive, though the profile of those believing in such outcomes deviates somewhat from those supporting affirmative action generally. In this instance, those least likely to have gained from affirmative action in practice are those least confident in the policy’s outcomes, possibly due to a gap between perceived performance of affirmative action policy and expected benefits.
Research on attitudes towards racial equality has identified an apparent paradox, sometimes described as the “Principle-Implementation Gap.” White Americans accept equality as an ideal yet reject interventions designed to achieve that ideal. In this article, we provide a critical review of empirical and theoretical work in the field and outline some directions for future research. Drawing on a program of research conducted in post-apartheid South Africa, we argue for the value of: (1) widening the field beyond its traditional focus on White policy attitudes in the United States; (2) developing relational models that encompass more fully the perspectives of historically disadvantaged as well as historically advantaged communities; (3) making greater use of methods that elucidate how ordinary people themselves construct the meaning of the Principle-Implementation Gap and how this informs, and indeed justifies and normalizes, associated patterns of behavior; and (4) prioritizing the difficult question of how to promote social change in societies where most citizens embrace equality as a noble end but often reject the means through which it might be accomplished. With regards to the latter—and given the ascendancy of prejudice-based explanations of the Principle-Implementation Gap—the article evaluates in particular some strengths and limitations of a prejudice-reduction model of social change.
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This paper responds to the critical points raised by Morgan (1998) about Discourse and Social Psychology. She suggests that the book is organized around basic binaries (inner/outer, representation/reality, nature/culture) which reflect and reproduce logocentricism and thereby phallogocentricism, and she proposes that the phenomenon of silence is one which is simultaneously of particular concern to women and beyond the limits of a discourse approach. The response takes issue with the philosophical idealism and gender essentialism of these arguments, stressing that binaries are made sexist or progressive in the context of specific ideological practices. We disagree with both her identification of binaries in Discourse and Social Psychology and their claimed consequences. The paper ends by outlining some ways in which silence can be approached from conversation analytic and discourse analytic perspectives, and raising some reflexive questions about Morgan's own construction of gender and silence.
We address the role of racial antagonism in whites’ opposition to racially-targeted policies. The data come from four surveys selected for their unusually rich measurement of both policy preferences and other racial attitudes: the 1986 and 1992 National Election Studies, the 1994 General Social Survey, and the 1995 Los Angeles County Social Survey. They indicate that such opposition is more strongly rooted in racial antagonism than in non-racial conservatism, that whites tend to respond to quite different racial policies in similar fashion, that racial attitudes affect evaluations of black and ethnocentric white presidential candidates, and that their effects are just as strong among college graduates as among those with no college education. Second, we present evidence that symbolic racism is consistently more powerful than older forms of racial antagonism, and its greater strength does not diminish with controls on non-racial ideology, partisanship, and values. The origins of symbolic racism lie partly in both anti-black antagonism and non-racial conservative attitudes and values, and so mediates their effects on policy preferences, but it explains substantial additional variance by itself, suggesting that it does represent a new form of racism independent of older racial and political attitudes. The findings are each replicated several times with different measures, in different surveys conducted at different times. We also provide new evidence in response to earlier critiques of research on symbolic racism.
This research attempts to determine whether different status consistency and inconsistency types are systematically associated with whites' acceptance of individual and structural factors in explaining blacks' low socioeconomic status. Employing data from the General Social Surveys 1985-1994, I explore this question, separately for males and females, using logistic regression analysis. I find that, compared to status consistent individuals, status inconsistent overachievers are more likely to hold "individualist" explanations while status inconsistent underachievers are more likely to hold "structuralist" explanations. Additionally, although there is a faint suggestion that white females are a bit more sympathetic toward blacks' crippled status than white males, it nevertheless fails to surpass conventional levels of statistical significance. The overall absence of such effects, given the fact that white females have been the subject of sexism themselves, raises a question of dual nature of "whiteness," i.e., white females as both oppressors and oppressed.
A general theory of domain identification is used to describe achievement barriers still faced by women in advanced quantitative areas and by African Americans in school. The theory assumes that sustained school success requires identification with school and its subdomains; that societal pressures on these groups (e.g., economic disadvantage, gender roles) can frustrate this identification; and that in school domains where these groups are negatively stereotyped, those who have become domain identified face the further barrier of stereotype threat, the threat that others' judgments or their own actions will negatively stereotype them in the domain. Research shows that this threat dramatically depresses the standardized test performance of women and African Americans who are in the academic vanguard of their groups (offering a new interpretation of group differences in standardized test performance), that it causes disidentification with school, and that practices that reduce this threat can reduce these negative effects.