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Ovett Nwosimiri argues in a paper he published in 2021 that affirmative action and preferential hiring policies are no longer appropriate for South Africa because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The case he makes is that since COVID-19 has impacted people of all races, there should no longer be any consideration of race in hiring policies and practices. He claims that continued preferential hiring practices unfairly discriminate against non-designated groups. I argue that this claim presumes that the pandemic has been a devastating but equalizing force in economic opportunity and participation for people in South Africa. I show that this claim is simply false and that the falsity of his claim undermines Nwosimiri’s case. Nwosimiri does not take account of the false premise his case is founded on because of his inappropriate methodological choice to ignore empirical evidence that has bearing on his argument.
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Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
COVID-19 and Affirmative Action: A Response
Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University &
Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University
Ovett Nwosimiri argues in a paper he published in 2021 that affirmative action and
preferential hiring policies are no longer appropriate for South Africa because of the
economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The case he makes is that since
COVID-19 has impacted people of all races, there should no longer be any
consideration of race in hiring policies and practices. He claims that continued
preferential hiring practices unfairly discriminate against non-designated groups. I
argue that this claim presumes that the pandemic has been a devastating but
equalizing force in economic opportunity and participation for people in South
Africa. I show that this claim is simply false and that the falsity of his claim
undermines Nwosimiri’s case. Nwosimiri does not take account of the false premise
his case is founded on because of his inappropriate methodological choice to ignore
empirical evidence that has bearing on his argument.
Keywords: Affirmative action, Preferential hiring, Race-based policy, Apartheid,
Economic justice
South Africa is notorious for its policy of Apartheid which was a complete socio-
political and economic system of White supremacist segregationist exploitation.
Following on from earlier colonial racial exploitation often codified in law (e.g., see
ADHIKARI 2005, 3), the numerous discriminatory practices of South Africa set a
hierarchical colour bar for various industries with White people at the top and Black
people at the bottom. “Discriminatory legislation and social practices in pre‐
democratic South Africa led to a labour market strongly stratified by race, with
whites holding the most‐skilled and best‐paying jobs” (GRADÍN 2019, 573). The
introduction of several laws in education, training, and formally enacting job
reservations favouring White people affected even the most mundane of professions
over this period (KENNY 2020). The result of this has been that the present-day
economic structure of South Africa resembles and is continuous with that of
Apartheid (FRANCIS, VALODIA, and WEBSTER 2020; GRADÍN 2019).
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
In the first few years of democratic South Africa, correcting this inequitable and
unjustly created imbalance was seen as a top priority for thenew’ amalgamated
government. One of the measures taken by this government was to repeal racist
discriminatory legislation and introduce corrective legislation in its place. The
repealing of a suite of Apartheid laws, including job reservation legislation was
followed by the Employment Equity Act, No. 55 of 1998. This development was in
line with global lessons “from other societies, such as the United States or Latin
American countries, [that] indicate that removing all discriminatory legislation is
not enough to eradicate racial discrimination and segregation” (GRADÍN 2019,
The Employment Equity Act contains affirmative action legislation or
policy in Chapter III of the Employment Equity Act of 1998. Affirmative action
targets designated groups which have historically been unfairly excluded from the
workplace and opportunities thereof (LEE 2020). The Employment Equity Act aims
to achieve employment equity in the South African workplace. The Preamble of the
Act gives its rationale as an effort to redress the employment and broader economic
imbalances caused by Apartheid and other discriminatory laws and practices. The
focus of my comment here is on racial inequities. In the words of the legislators,
they explain that “as a result of apartheid and other discriminatory laws and
practices, there are disparities in employment, occupation and income within the
national labour market” (DEPARTMENT OF LABOUR 2014). It is recognized that
these “disparities create such pronounced disadvantages for certain categories of
people that… cannot be redressed simply by repealing discriminatory laws”
(DEPARTMENT OF LABOUR 2014), hence the interventions introduced by
legislation such as the Employment Equity Act and others (see MCGREGOR 2007).
The Employment Equity Act and all its amendments identify “designated
groups” as women, people with disabilities, and Black people in the broader
inclusive sense of ‘Black’. The category ‘Black’ is not always used in this inclusive
fashion, but the understanding of who is Black in this Act (and related legislation)
includes “Black Africans, Coloured people, and Indian [or Asian people]” unless
otherwise specified. In a similar vein, the Broad-Based Black Economic
Empowerment Act 53 of 2003, and its more recent amendments, states that ‘Black
people’ “is a generic term which means Africans, Coloureds and Indians” (THE
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT 2014).1 The category ‘Indianis also often
used ambiguously to include people of Chinese and East Asian descent so that the
category is referred to as “Indian/Asian” in a generic sense. Importantly, the
classifications Black African, Coloured, Indian or Asian, White, and Other are
defined as population designations rather than as race groups by the official
government statistical agency, Statistics South Africa.
Nevertheless, their population designation groups are demographic
population groups purposefully designed to correspond to Apartheid race group
classifications. These demographic population groups are groups “with common
characteristics (in terms of descent and history)” (STATISTICS SOUTH AFRICA
2010, 72). For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the population group terms
used in the abovementioned Acts and Statistics South Africa as classifications that
refer to the demographic groups relevant to this discussion.
1 The terms in official use as seen in this description can be problematic because the
demographic categories used refer to different kinds of group identifiers that can create
redundancy and/or contradiction if not just confusion. For instance, the use of the category
‘African’ as distinct from ‘Coloured’ seems to raise a tension about how Coloured identity is
constructed in South Africa (cf. ADHIKARI 2005). That there are Africans, such as peoples
included in the racial classification Coloured, not counted in this use of the term ‘African’
make this use of terminology incomplete or inconsistent, causing confusion. This confusion
has deep historical roots, but it is also connected to the social distinctions that have been made
between population concepts such as ‘African’ and racial concepts such as ‘Black’ in South
African race discourse (MSIMANG 2021). With a more recent recognition of shared African
heritage between indigenous groups in South Africa, this has not been accompanied by a
reconfiguration and transformation of the politics of racial identities or racial classification.
Thus, a sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of the contemporary political construction of race
needs to be considered as racial classifications do not have a simple relationship with the facts
of heritage such as continental group population belonging, shared ancestry, or culture.
Perhaps in an attempt to have such sensitivity and avoid confusion, but by so doing creating
‘new’ confusions (e.g., about who are African people), government uses these categories as
only demographic groups rather than as racial classifications. Nevertheless, their
demographic groups are designed to have a direct correspondence to Apartheid racial
categories for the purposes of addressing historical injustices, leading to some of these
challenges in their use of a mixture of group-identifying concepts. It is the interchanging of
race-based terms with population-based terms that causes some of this confusion. I do not
subscribe to views such as Chimakonam’s who claims that “either we are uncritical in
holding the views that people are black or white, or we are acting immorally by holding
such views” (CHIMAKONAM 2019, 2) because I hold that racial classifications can be used
for functions beyond racism and can help us in our anti-racist efforts in at least allowing us
to collect data on issues pertaining to racial (in)equity such as in the discussion in this paper.
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
This discussion will be looking at the case against affirmative action made by Ovett
Nwosimiri, which he bases on an argument constructed from philosophical sources
(see NWOSIMIRI 2021). When Nwosimiri speaks about affirmative action and
preferential hiring in his paper, he is “referring to the preference [to hire] black
[people] (and women) South Africans over white South Africans (and people of
other nationalities)” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 12). Other aspects of preferential hiring
are not dealt with in his paper. He specifically finds exception with—and only
focuses on—why Black South Africans should be preferred over White people and
people of other nationalities.
Affirmative action policy in South Africa has rightly been criticized and
sometimes condemned given some of its formulation as Black Economic
Empowerment (BEE) policy. Criticism of BEE policy in all its updated iterations
centre on the observation that it has been used to favour the politically connected
over the betterment of the groups it is meant to support. It is unclear why our policies
do not exclude the ‘creamy layer’ of elites and focus on the disadvantaged in their
affirmative action policies (cf. GURURAJ et al. 2021). Moreover, industry often
exploits BEE policy to win contracts and fulfil their institutional interests whilst
treating the problems for which BEE policies are designed to intervene as secondary
or irrelevant (MAKGOBA 2019).
South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with most
of this economic inequality being gendered and racially structured – even in the
fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic (CASALE and POSEL 2021). Inequality in
South Africa is a serious historical problem that has proven to be stubbornly
persistent (ZIZZAMIA, SCHOTTE, and LEIBBRANDT 2019). The so-called new
South Africa is in many ways a continuation of a structurally racist society
(KINCAID 2018, 16). Unfortunately, we are nowhere near solving the problem of
inequality, including the racial character of this inequality in South Africa
(GRADÍN 2019). The health and economic consequences of the COVID-19
pandemic have only made this situation more dire (CASALE and Posel 2021) with
the pandemic highlighting and exacerbating the aforementioned inequalities
(FRANCIS, VALODIA, and WEBSTER 2020, 343). Under these conditions,
Nwosimiri asks us “given the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that job losses
affected people of all races, should affirmative action policies and preferential hiring
still be considered in South Africa?” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 2).
In the rest of this paper, I argue for why we should still consider affirmative
action policy and challenge Nwosimiri’s argument for why he thinks that we should
not. I do this by undermining some of the major claims he makes in his paper and
questioning his decision to forgo the consideration of empirical evidence that has a
bearing on his case. I will frame the question about affirmative action and
preferential hiring as one about justice. Then I will highlight evidence that the job
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
losses during the pandemic have not been an equalising force across race groups,
meaning that the pandemic has not altered the structural conditions of economic
participation in employment towards non-racialised conditions. To the contrary, I
discuss some recent research about employment bias that shows that designated
groups are still disadvantaged in the workplace and have a more difficult time
finding work than equivalent employees from non-designated groups. The argument
that I present is that if affirmative action policy and preferential hiring practices
were justified before, the pandemic has only strengthened their case given the
racially differential burden of loss and suffering experienced during this time that is
continuous with (and has exacerbated) the racial inequities established through
colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa.
A Case of Misdirection about AA policy: (Mis-)using the COVID-19 Pandemic
The debate about affirmative action remains important and controversial in many
respects, not the least of which is how it may affect the economic prospects of entire
demographic groups (GURURAJ et al. 2021). For this reason, it remains a publicly
contested topic and a central talking point in South African politics (LEE 2020).
Nwosimiri argues that since COVID-19 has affected the entire South
African population, we need to rethink the management of our economy.
Specifically, he argues that COVID-19 has changed the economic landscape such
that preferential hiring policies should be abandoned. He makes such predictions
and recommendations as the claim that for “South Africa to get out of its (post)-
COVID-19 slump, every qualified individual in the country should be given job
opportunities to uplift the economy given that the pandemic did not choose a certain
race, sex or nationality to affect” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 15).
Nwosimiri’s argument amounts to the claim that “the COVID-19 pandemic
affected everyone in one way or another and did not discriminate” (Nwosimiri 2021,
15). From this, he surmises that “affirmative action and preferential hiring should
not be considered in South Africa” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 15). Against the
implementation of affirmative action policy, he argues that jobs ought to be equally
divided amongst everyone that has lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Employers
should have nothing but the company’s best interest when they are choosing
candidates for a job. Race, sex or nationality should not be a priority when engaging
potential candidates, but the best-qualified candidate should be chosen… everyone
should be given an equal platform and opportunity to prove themselves in
workplaces, regardless of their race, sex, nationality and so forth.” (NWOSIMIRI
2021, 15)
Without getting into a debate about the values promoted above, we can
simply note that there are tensions in the above statements. One is the suggestion
that jobs be divided ‘equally’ whilst employers are meant to only consider the
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
company’s best interest when choosing candidates. Moreover, only considering the
company’s best interest may conflict with the social goal Nwosimiri assents to of
having a more inclusive workforce and a less economically unequal society. My
discussion of Nwosimiri’s case will not focus on these and other internal tensions
in his statements. Rather, my focus is on how his claims about the South African
economy are false and do not support his view.
I argue that his case against affirmative action is baseless since it rejects
empirical evidence unjustifiably and does not ground its case in the actual economic
state of affairs we find ourselves in (i). I take note of the fact that affirmative action
can make people uncomfortable or even unhappy, as Nwosimiri suggests, but I
argue that despite this being a legitimate concern and consideration it gives us no
guidance on whether affirmative action is just (ii). I then follow with an argument
against Nwosimiri’s intimation that there is not a space for White people and people
of other nationalities in the South African workplace. I do this by making recourse
to present trends in the labour market that show a disproportionate share of
employment for a group he argues we need to make (more?) space for. I suggest,
conversely, that more needs to be done for employment equity for other segments
of populations in South Africa (iii). I stress that it is important to take into account
the demographic history and structure of loss, suffering, and misfortune that has
befallen communities in order to make fairer socioeconomic interventions and that
the demographic dimensions of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic support
rather than undermine the targeted interventions of affirmative action policy (iv).
(i) No empirical findings
A serious limitation of Nwosimiri’s argument is that it does not engage with relevant
employment statistics despite making recommendations on what it is we should do
about employment. He justifies this by stating that his “paper is philosophically
based” (Nwosimiri 2021, 2). By this he means that he will rely on “published books
and articles [in philosophy]… as opposed to empirical findings” (NWOSIMIRI
2021, 2).
But one cannot simply forgo empirical evidence and make a case despite
what empirical evidence may pertain to an argument. There must be principled—
sound—reasons why the matter is not dependent on empirical considerations. To
merely state that a case is “philosophically based” does not justify a turn away from
observational or statistical evidence, especially when such evidence has a bearing
on the case being made. To be philosophical is not to ignore empirical evidence out
of hand.
Nwosimiri, nevertheless, does selectively cite empirical evidence about
South Africa’s economic state of affairs. Despite framing his enquiry as
‘philosophical’, Nwosimiri depends on unemployment statistics to make the case
that COVID-19 has impacted South African economic activity and participation
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
negatively. He does this in a three-page exposition discussing job loss statistics close
to the entirety of his section “COVID-19 and Job Losses” (Nwosimiri 2021, 4–6).2
He says of the statistics that they “clearly [show] the devastating effect of the
coronavirus and lockdown on people and jobs” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 5).
Nwosimiri’s reliance on job loss statistics to illustrate the seriousness of
job losses suffered due to the pandemic shows recognition, to some extent, that his
is not only a ‘philosophical’ argument but is an argument dependent on the actual
economic situation in South Africa. So even if we were to accept his version of a
‘philosophical approach’ to the question, we find that he does not follow his own
provision for what his argument is meant to be based on. By this token, we can
consider his rejection of empirical evidence as selective and inconsistent. Empirical
evidence does have bearing on his case in his own account.
Furthermore, Nwosimiri is making an empirical claim when he says that “the
COVID-19 pandemic… did not discriminate” (Nwosimiri 2021, 15). From this
claim, he argues that “considering the current situation caused by the pandemic,
race, sex, and nationality should not be a priority when engaging candidates”
(NWOSIMIRI 2021, 15).
I put to question the premise upon which Nwosimiri bases this argument.
If his premise is false, then his argument and his subsequent conclusion about
affirmative action do not follow. For us to know whether it is true that the effect of
the pandemic did not discriminate – that it was not biased – we need to look at the
empirical evidence collected about how different groups have been affected by the
pandemic. For the purposes of this argument, I will make recourse to official South
African labour statistics. I present these statistics in (iii) and (iv) to demonstrate that
the economic effects of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected the same
demographic groups affirmative action policy is targeted at assisting. I argue that
empirical evidence undermines Nwosimiri’s case against affirmative action.
(ii) It is about our feelings
Nwosimiri recounts a standard argument for affirmative action policy in South
Africa. He argues that the rationale for affirmative action and preferential hiring
policies is to correct the injustices of the Apartheid era (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 13–14).
Stronger claims than those he reviews are often made for affirmative action and why
it is necessary when the wrong of Apartheid is viewed in its larger historical setting
2 It is significant to note that none of the statistics he cites breaks down job losses by
demographic. It is arguable that if he did cite job loss statistics by population
group/demographic, his case would not get off the ground. See (iv) for a discussion
of this point.
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
as an episode in a longer racially exploitative system of domination with its roots in
colonialism and its laws (see MCGREGOR 2006; cf. DLADLA 2017; MODIRI
2020). The view that Nwosimiri is describing is weaker and concerns itself only
with the wrong of Apartheid narrowly construed. What affirmative action is meant
to remedy in this construal is simply the inequities created by the discrimination of
Nwosimiri suggests an awareness that the pandemic has not changed the
historical facts that have established racial inequality in South Africa – the historical
facts supporters of affirmative action tend to use to establish their case. In arguing
for his view, he summarises the pro-affirmative action stance under the present
pandemic thus:
…whether [we are in a] pandemic or not, there is still a need to make
amends for the historical injustices through the compensation of jobs.
Therefore, affirmative action and preferential hiring should still be
considered and is very much needed; it is one of the many solutions
that will help South Africa bridge the inequality gap. (NWOSIMIRI
2021, 14)
Discrimination under Apartheid was White supremacist and was designed to
specifically advance and benefit White people at the expense of the rest of the people
in the country. The consequence of this system of discrimination and domination, a
part of the longue durée of the colonial and racially-biased exploitation of South
Africa, is the hierarchical economic structure we have maintained well into
democratic South Africa (see GRAN 2019). Nwosimiri mentions some of the
ways COVID-19 has exacerbated the economic problems of South Africa, including
the concentration of poor economic outcomes for certain demographic groups. He
South Africa is suffering from an infamously high level of inequality
marked by the Gini index. The high level of inequality display[s] itself in various
ways. Some of the ways include racialization and regional differences, income
distribution and unequal access to opportunities. To this, social and economic
divides between white and black South Africans exist, and these divisions have been
made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 12; emphasis mine)
The significance of this observation is lost on Nwosimiri in respect to what
it means for his case against affirmative action. He reasons from this problem that
“affirmative action and preferential hiring are measures employed to redress the
injustice of apartheid which affected just a section of the people, whereas the
COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant economic downturn affected not just a
section but all” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 14). He argues from this that affirmative action
and preferential hiring practices should be abandoned.
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
Yet his observation of disproportionality in the economic effects of
COVID-19 creates problems for this conclusion, particularly the premise it is based
on. The observation of disproportionality in the demographic effects of COVID-19
stand in direct contradiction to other claims Nwosimiri makes, like his claim that
“COVID-19… did not discriminate” (Nwosimiri 2021, 15). This is a serious
oversight because, as I will show in (iii) and (iv), the recognition of the
disproportionality in effect and affect undermines Nwosimiri’s argument by
contradicting the premise upon which it is built. If COVID-19 did not have South
Africans lose their jobs equally (and is not an equalising force), how could
Nwosimiri justify the claim that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have made
consideration of demographic group belonging, particularly in terms of race and
nationality, irrelevant?
Nwosimiri deals with the objection that the pandemic has affected some
groups disproportionately by pointing out that he doubts that white South Africans
(and people of other nationalities) living in South Africa can in good faith feel happy
that they lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and also knowing that there are
high chances that in the (post)-COVID-19 black South Africans stand a better
chance of getting a job that they (white South Africans and people of other
nationalities) are best qualified for (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 14).
Nwosimiri is inviting us to consider how affirmative action and preferential
hiring policy make people feel when they are disadvantaged by such policies. This
is a legitimate concern and consideration (LEE 2020), yet it is not clear how this
concern or consideration as presented relates to whether it is just for us to have
preferential hiring and affirmative action policies. Nwosimiri uses our sympathy and
duty of care for the misfortune of people who have lost their jobs or will lose out on
opportunities to persuade us against preferential hiring policies. But having the
ability to sympathise or empathise with the misfortune of other people does not
mean that affirmative action and preferential hiring is or is not the correct course of
action to take.
At this juncture, Nwosimiri makes several claims that are relevant to this
discussion. The first is that White South Africans and people of other nationalities
are (can be?) best qualified for the jobs available in South Africa. This is an
empirical matter, and one which I presume should be settled on a case-by-case basis.
The second is that Black South Africans have a much better chance of getting a job
than other groups. Relating the first claim to the second, Nwosimiri claims Black
South Africans’ chances are so good that they have a better chance of getting a job
than Whites and people of other nationalities who are—purportedly—best (or
better?) qualified for these jobs. That Black South Africans have a better chance of
securing a job than Whites and people from other countries is simply not the case
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
given the statistics on the absorption rate of job seekers into the labour force we will
review in (iii) (see also Figure 1).
We must admit that it would be unusual for someone who must miss out
on an opportunity or meaningful employment to be happy about it. Nwosimiri is
right to point out that being overlooked for an opportunity because of affirmative
action is unlikely to make anyone happy. Nevertheless, that any such person would
not be happy does not tell us whether they understand or agree with the reasons why
they would be passed over for particular opportunities. Moreover, and more to the
point, whether certain individuals or groups are happy about affirmative action does
not give us any insight into the rightness or wrongness of affirmative action policy
and whether we should pursue it.3
Nwosimiri is suggesting that since White South Africans and people of
other nationalities would not feel happy about being passed over for opportunities
because of affirmative action or preferential hiring policies, we should not employ
such policies. If the argument for implementing affirmative action policy is one
about justice, it does not seem directly relevant that some people would not feel
happy. The question would rather be if affirmative action promotes justice or not.
That some people will not be happy is not enough reason not to undertake such
action or follow such policies – unless, of course, it is viewed as a greater injustice
that some people would not feel happy about affirmative action and preferential
hiring than its implementation. Deference to the feelings of those who miss out on
opportunities because of affirmative action is a rhetorical strategy that functions to
shift the argument from one about whether affirmative action is just to an argument
about prioritizing certain groups’ feelings above the question of justice. What must
be noted about these kinds of arguments is that they do not consider the feelings of
the groups that would be the beneficiaries of affirmative action, especially in how
they would feel and continue to feel about their marginalization under present
conditions. If we are to consider how the use or non-use of affirmative action has
affect, then the feelings of the possible beneficiaries of such policies should also be
considered. But beyond the concern we share about how people may feel about
affirmative action, we want to know if affirmative action is just.
3 If we were to find that most people do not enjoy paying their taxes, and that paying taxes
does not make them happy, it is an insufficient reason for us to stop paying taxes given what
the rationale or reason is for us having to pay taxes is in the first place. The same can be said
with the implementation of affirmative action policy. The rationale and justification for the
policy is where our focus should lie although it is polite and good to also consider and address
people’s feelings.
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
(iii) There is no space for Whites (and people from other countries)
In making his case for the employment of White people and people from other
countries, Nwosimiri says that he is “not in any way suggesting that they should be
preferred to black South Africans” but that he wishes “to suggest that something
needs to be done to make space for them [White people and people of other
nationalities] in the workplace” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 14). He goes as far as to say
that employers are subjected to the hiring of blacks and female South Africans as
opposed to white South Africans (and people of other nationalities) who are more
qualified. This evidently shows that black and white South Africans (and people of
other nationalities) do not have an equal right to the job advertised (NWOSIMIRI
2021, 11).
Nwosimiri’s suggestion that something needs to be done to make space for
White people and people of other nationalities in the workplace presumes that they
do not have space in the workplace. What Nwosimiri is suggesting is that White
people and people of other nationalities are unfairly disadvantaged by affirmative
action and preferential hiring policies. This is a claim we can put to the test by
looking at what hires have been made since institutions in South Africa have been
implementing affirmative action and preferential hiring action policies.
South Africa has mandated affirmative action policies for decades and
incentivizes the hiring of designated groups whilst still routinely employing people
from all race groups and nationalities. As I have mentioned elsewhere (MSIMANG
2022, 13–14): employment statistics show that White people, for example, have the
highest absorption rate into the labour force of 61,6% in the first quarter of 2021 as
compared to 48,3% for Indian/Asian people, 42,9% for Coloured people, and 35%
for Black people (Statistics South Africa 2021, 28–29). Whites enjoy the privilege
of being both the most desired workers in the economy and those who also land jobs
that tend to pay them better than other demographic groups, for a variety of reasons.
How we know that Whites continue to be unfairly favoured by employers is that
“segregation and stratification” in employment “remain when blacks and whites
with similar characteristics are compared” (GRADÍN 2019, 553; cf. NAIDOO,
STANWIX, and YU 2014).
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
Figure 1: White people as a demographic have the highest absorption rate in the
country, meaning they are the most likely to group to secure employment. This has
been the case throughout COVID-19. This employment preference for White people
continues a trend that begins before the pandemic. The source of this data is the
Stats SA Quarterly Labour Survey 2021 Q1 (STATISTICS SOUTH AFRICA
White advantage in employment and the overall Apartheid structure of
employment in SA is a fact reflected by Whites as a demographic having the
lowest unemployment rate in the country of 8,1% compared to Black people at
36,7%, Coloured people at 25,2%, and Indian people at 14,9%. Whites also enjoy
the highest labour market participation by population group of 67,1% as compared
to Black people at 55,3%, Coloured people at 57,3%, and Indian/Asian people at
56,8% (STATISTICS SOUTH AFRICA 2021, 28–29). Although some White
people are economically vulnerable and poor, White poverty in 2015 was at about
4%, whereas poverty for Black African population was at about 71% (FINN 2015,
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
p. 7). The unacceptable problem of poverty is concentrated in the Black populations
of South Africa, especially Black Africans and Coloured people (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Poverty rates from Finn (2015, p. 7) A national minimum wage in the
South African labour market context. Last accessed on 29 June 2021, retrieved from:
There are numerous reasons for why Whites in South Africa enjoy the highest
absorption rate into the South African labour force, but of importance to us in this
debate is that one of the reasons is racist favour and discrimination. Despite such
behaviour going against the Employment Equity Act among other legislation – and
despite it going against the purported social contract of the ‘new South Africa’
I was not able to secure more recent estimates of poverty by racial population group from
Statistics South Africa.
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
general economy-wide hiring practices and the work of private recruitment agencies
show that racist discrimination against people who are not White and a preference
for White candidates still plays a significant role in our inequitable employment
outcomes even when we have controlled for relevant factors such as age, education,
experience, and skill level discrimination (GRADÍN 2019, 553; MARTIN and
In the profession of philosophy in which Nwosimiri and I work, a recent
study of universities showed that Whites made up 80,2% of the teaching staff in the
institutions that participated (PAPHITIS and VILLET 2017, 8) despite White people
only making up about 8% of the country’s population in the same period
(STATISTICS SOUTH AFRICA 2017). People of nationalities other than South
African made up about 20% of the staff compliment of these universities with about
80% of those people of other nationalities being European (PAPHITIS and VILLET
2017, 8). What was interesting to note here is that of the Black staff compliment of
these universities of about 10,9%, 62,5% of them were Black people from South
Africa and 37,5% of them were non-South African Blacks (PAPHITIS and VILLET
2017, 8). Although the samples used in the report were not comprehensive or
necessarily representative of the entire South African university landscape,
particularly in philosophy, what we can take away from the statistics available is
that there is space for White people and people from other countries in our
employment practices in philosophy. All South African demographic groups other
than Whites are under-represented in the academy, and Black people from other
countries have better representation in the academy than Black, Coloured, and
Indian people from South Africa.
White people are generally overrepresented in the workplace, with their
concentration relative to economically active population size increasing in
overrepresentation the higher up institutions and economic strata one goes
(DEPARTMENT OF LABOUR 2019, 15–19).5 The Department of Labour’s 20th
Commission for Employment Equity Annual report 2019-20 notes that there is an
employment “preference of Foreign Nationals rather than SA Nationals at entry
occupational levels” (Department of Labour 2019, 1). They also noted that, at
managerial levels, “White people and Foreign Nationals account for 62% in 2018
(58%: 2017), with Black [men] recording 16,76% (20%: 2017) and [women] at
21,63% (18%: 2017)” (DEPARTMENT OF LABOUR 2019, 6). The demographic
characteristics of foreign nationals preferred at entry level positions compared to
foreign nationals absorbed into management positions is a significant factor of
consideration but one which I will not address. What is relevant at this juncture of
5 This is also true of the Indian/Asian population, but to a lesser extent than Whites (see
Department of Labour 2019, 15–19).
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
the argument is that this trend in the labour market shows a year-on-year increase in
the proportion of White and foreign national management, for instance, which
suggests that there is space for these workers in the employed workforce. Despite
some controversy on points of equity, White people and people from other countries
rightly continue to be hired because our preferential hiring practices do not exclude
anyone from employment; there is only a preference for certain candidates so that
we can have a more equitable workplace and a less unequal society. Statistics and
present employer behaviour are not consistent with the view that there is no space
in the workplace for White people and people from other countries. These statistics
suggest quite the opposite. It is arguable that there is evidence of the continuation
of the historical marginalization of South African Black and Coloured peoples from
economic participation despite strides in other directions in employment equity.
What, then, could Nwosimiri mean by suggesting that something is to be
done to make space for White people and people from other countries in the
workplace? There is demonstrably space for them in the workplace, and Whites in
particular are over-represented in the workplace because of historical legislated
discriminatory practices and current systemic issues (see DEPARTMENT OF
LABOUR 2019). The argument Nwosimiri makes is redundant if its purpose is to
‘make a space’ for White people and people of other nationalities in the workplace
since they already have a space in the workplace. This leaves an alternative function
for Nwosimiri’s argument: it is not about making a space for these groups in
employment but, rather, to reject affirmative action and preferential hiring practices
even at the expense of maintaining or increasing present levels of disproportional
representation. The problem with this approach is that it is based on false claims
about present employment dynamics that also misleads on the actual demographic
constitution of the South African workforce. By this token, Nwosimiri’s policy
suggestion to rid ourselves of affirmative action and preferential hiring policies does
not follow from the conditions upon which his case rests.
In the broader policy debate and social discussion in South Africa about
the legitimacy or illegitimacy of affirmative action and preferential hiring policy,
Nwosimiri’s view and rhetorical strategy are not unique. How the argument against
affirmative action is meant to be persuasive here is by appealing to a fear of people
who are not White being unfair, and a fear that Whites and people of other
nationalities will be (or are already being) unfairly discriminated against. There truly
is this moral risk inherent in setting out preferences in employment. We do not want
to have discrimination re-emerge as the marginalization of different groups
depending on who is writing the laws. The fear and concern appealed to in
Nwosimiri’s case can be found in political parties such as the Democratic Alliance
who take explicitly anti-affirmative action stances (see AFRICA 2019, 379), some
of which arguably should not be controversial (such as means testing), and in the
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
reports of civil society actors like the South African Institute of Race Relations
(MSIMANG 2022). But given the data available on this issue, such as the data I
have just reviewed, their fears and concerns about affirmative action and preferential
hiring policies are not justified by actual hiring practices. Affirmative action and
preferential hiring has not led to a situation in which Whites and people from other
countries are excluded from the labour market and employment. The argument that
Whites and people from other countries are being unfairly discriminated against in
hiring practices is not reflected in the data on the economic participation and
absorption rates of the labour force. The fear of affirmative action being ‘reverse
Apartheid’ or ‘reverse racism’ is not borne out by present and historical trends in
recruitment, participation, stratification, and economic segregation. In fact, these
trends suggest that people who are not White are still unfairly discriminated against
in the work place.
Recent studies “have not found compelling evidence to supporting the idea
that the distribution of occupations has been effectively either [racially]
desegregated or [racially] destratified in post‐apartheid South Africa” (GRADÍN
2019, 573), a situation also reflected in the country’s continued dire inequality
(Francis, Valodia, and Webster 2020). There is a deeply racial dimension to the
economic problems of South Africa, parts of which are still driven by racism and a
preference for Whites in the workplace (GRADÍN 2019; NAIDOO, STANWIX,
and YU 2014; MARTIN and DURRHEIM 2006). Furthermore, inequality in South
Africa is also driven by systemic forces and is often the result of the structurally
racist organization of our society (KINCAID 2018, 16). This suggests that the
problem of inequality cannot be understood or effectively solved by looking at the
problem from the level of the individual alone. It is evident that this problem is one
with particularly demographic components, so the challenge is also one that needs
to deal with the demographic realities of the problem even if in some policy
arrangement we are yet to formulate. Echoing Steven Freedman on the Democratic
Alliance’s ‘non-racial’ (race-blind and colour-blind) orientation, it does seem that
Nwosimiri’s insistence that policy and hiring practices must ignore race in South
Africa “is like insisting that economic inequality should have been ignored in
nineteenth century Europe” (FREEDMAN 2020).
(iv) We all suffer (a gloss of disproportionate affect)
Nwosimiri argues that “affirmative action and preferential hiring should not be
considered in South Africa during the (post)-COVID-19” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 2)
era because unlike “apartheid which affected just a section of the people […] the
COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant economic downturn affected not just a
section but all” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 14). We could optimistically assume, as
Nwosimiri does, that most “people would agree that achieving a unified and
Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions
equitable society is something morally desirable” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 12). His
proposal on how to achieve this “is to strategize on how to compensate job losses
equally amongst everyone” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 12).
It is of interest here to consider which people in South Africa and in what
proportions have experienced job losses during this pandemic. This question is
ignored by—or does not arise for—Nwosimiri because he thinks it is sufficient to
state that “the COVID-19 pandemic and […] job losses [have] affected people of all
races” (NWOSIMIRI 2021, 2). This is despite the fact that official statistics show
that job losses that are the result of the pandemic have disproportionately negatively
affected Black people (see Figure 3), and despite Nwosimiri’s recognition of the
disproportionate effect of the pandemic on people of different races (see
NWOSIMIRI 2021, 12).
Figure 3: Every demographic except White people has a worse unemployment rate
compared to when the pandemic began to one year into the pandemic. Every other
demographic has a higher unemployment rate compared to when the pandemic
began, with Black people facing the worst outcomes. The source of this data is the
Stats SA Quaterly Labour Survey 2021 Q1 (STATISTICS SOUTH AFRICA 2021).
This gloss over the shape and demographic dimensions of suffering and job losses
is not innocent, neutral, or harmless. The demographic dimensions of suffering and
loss are relevant to the question posed by Nwosimiri’s paper and more broadly to
Vol. 11. No. 2. May-Aug, 2022
the question of (economic) justice. It is only by ignoring the demographic
dimensions of this tragedy that Nwosimiri can contradictorily maintain that the
disproportionate suffering and loss of designated groups gives support to an
argument against their further targeted support. Nwosimiri’s argument, thus
construed, does not seem to follow from the premises of his argument and may, in
fact, be contradictory at base. Be that as it may, I have argued that the case
Nwosimiri makes against affirmative action is not tenable because it has no
foundation in actual hiring practices in South Africa which, when we look at the
data, seem to support the opposite case to his own.
If affirmative action was applicable and appropriate before the COVID-19
pandemic, then the development of the pandemic has not created the conditions in
which such policy is no longer applicable and appropriate. Instead of making such
policies and practices obsolete, the pandemic seems to reinforce the rationale for
their employment. This is because the pandemic has only exacerbated the country's
racially biased economic problems, with the poor, vulnerable, and economically
precarious more generally being the worst affected by the pandemic. Given the
racial dimension to South African inequality, labour force participation, and wealth,
the economic impact of the pandemic has and continues to have racially
differential outcomes. In light of these facts, Nwosimiri’s case is not persuasive. He
gives us no convincing reasons for why we should not consider race and other
demographic categories in hiring decisions.
One concern I highlight with arguments like Nwosimiri’s is that they give
indirect justification to the maintenance of the advantage of dominant groups by
undermining a means for the advancement of disadvantaged groups. This also
maintains the subordination of disadvantaged groups as no alternatives for their
advancement are given. Although some groups and individuals may benefit from
the scrapping of affirmative action and preferential hiring policies, even some of
those from designated groups (especially in the SA context of BEE), it is not clear
that scrapping affirmative action and preferential hiring policies would promote
justice and the social goals Nwosimiri agrees to of creating a more equitable and
inclusive society.
Relevant literature
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action policy: inclusion, exclusion, and the global public good," [Policy Features in
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[Philosophy of the Social Sciences], 139–167, 2018, Vol. 48 No. 2.
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and Luis Reyes-Galindo, 243–53. London: Routledge.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Historically, the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has been viewed as a reliable source of information given its near century-long work of compiling statistics and reports about race relations and the social conditions affecting different race groups in South Africa. I make the case that the IRR should not be considered a reliable source of information about race groups and their social conditions in contemporary South Africa because of how the IRR misrepresents the views of ordinary South Africans with the intention of influencing policy towards the IRR’s preferred ideological positions. Rather than presenting criticism of their ideological slant, I show how their policy proposals are not supported by their survey data or their interpretation. Furthermore, I argue that their misrepresentation of South Africans’ beliefs is damaging to democratic processes because what the public claims it wants from government has a significant impact on what government’s mandate from its citizenry is thought to be.
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The SARS-COVID-2 virus that causes the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been having a challenging and devastating impact on finances and jobs worldwide. More specifically, in South Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a crippling effect on jobs. Companies and businesses are struggling to operate and retain workers as revenue streams are drying up. Owners of companies and businesses have been forced to make difficult decisions. An example is the retrenchment of workers by some organizations because of the financial fallout due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, before the pandemic, South Africa had unemployment challenges, economic downgrading, and high levels of inequality (within the employment sector). These challenges bring to mind what the employment method and strategy will look like during the (post)-COVID-19. In view of these challenges, one question that comes to mind is: given the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the job losses affected people of all races, should the policies of affirmative action and preferential hiring still be considered in South Africa? Thus, this paper is a philosophical reflection on COVID-19, job losses, affirmative action, and preferential hiring in South Africa. In reflecting on the above, this paper aims to show that affirmative action and preferential hiring should not be considered in South Africa during the (post)-COVID-19. I conclude that in the face of this tragedy, for the sustainability of the economy, everyone needs to work together to re-establish and reconstruct the country and build an inclusive economy.
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