South Africa chose to implement Affirmative action because it makes sure that qualified designated groups (black people, women and people with disabilities) have equal opportunities to get a job. Affirmative action means advance to a better life, a long overdue chance to become and start enjoying the good things the country has to offer. For others, particularly those leading comfortable lives today, it signifies a new form of discrimination and injustice, a vengeful form of juggling around with race quotas so as to threaten their livelihoods and security. We see this as a false choice. If well handled, affirmative action will help bind the nation together and produce benefits for everyone. If badly managed, it will simply re-distribute resentment, damage the economy and destroy social peace. If not undertaken at all, the country will remain backward and divided at its heart. In South Africa, we are dealing with a majority, not a minority that has been subjected not just to prejudice but to state-organised discrimination.
Affirmative action comes on to the scene at the same time as the vote. It forms part of the new citizenship. Parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and the application of the principles of good government will all action affirmatively to improve the lives of the formerly disenfranchised majority. There is a vast amount of injustice that is automatically corrected simply by the application of normal and non-controversial principles of good government. Indeed, this is the main form that affirmative action will take. This will be the guarantee that affirmative action is grounded in the general advance of the poor and oppressed, and does not become a mechanism simply for enabling a new, light to emerge.
Our experience of living through transformations in Angola and Mozambique had taught us that sometimes the processes that brought the greatest rewards to the poor and the oppressed in the short term caused them the greatest hardship in the long run. Real victory for the people meant being able to deliver – not just promises and abstractions, but houses, jobs, electricity, water, schools and clinics, real freedom and real choices. We wanted democracy to be associated with a better life and peace, not with poorer living standards and civil war. The solution we chose was that of affirmative action. It was sufficiently open to take on a specific South African content and meaning, and yet concrete enough to have an unmistakable thrust in favour of the oppressed, taking special measures to ensure that black people and women and other groups who had been unfairly discriminated against in the past, would have real chances in life.