Having access to previously inaccessible areas brings opportunities as well as unintended consequences. Imagine at a private school where there are bursaries for previously disadvantaged kids (which is the politically correct term for poor black people in some social circles), in order to widen opportunities for them through a better education.
The benefit for the school is that it is seen to be transforming by having more black faces around. What is the emotional impact of these opportunities on those black kids?
Imagine in the corporate world where the broad-based black economic empowerment (BEE) rules require companies to widen their supplier base to include black-owned companies in their procurement opportunities. The question is how these companies’ access programmes affect the black suppliers? The same question applies to black partners in auditing and law firms.
There is a risk of a stigma attached to being a bursary student at school. This is because other pupils don’t see these bursary kids as having the same status despite the fact that to get the bursary in the first place there needs to be a high level of talent and competence. There is a tacit discrimination against pupils who are on the financial aid type bursaries.
For example, if there is a party over the weekend, the non-bursaried kids will get the invite, while it is assumed that the bursary kid can’t afford to get transport at night to get there and back home. The other alternative available would be for the bursary kid to sleep over at a friend’s place, which has dynamics of its own in terms of accentuating the differences in social status between the two.
For kids with a low self-esteem receiving a bursary would create a phenomenon of “negative dignity”. However, a different mindset can prevail where the same situation can be viewed from a positive developmental view. I went to a private school from Standard 8 (Grade 10), which was a financial stretch for my parents. I worked hard to make sure that I got the best academic results and by the end of that initial year I was able to get a 50 percent bursary, which helped ease the financial burden on my parents.
The stigma of being a bursary kid started thereafter, but I really didn’t care because I wanted to learn and I was determined to be successful no matter what. I absorbed all the different lifestyles that I came across, which helped craft the life that I wanted. So the negative taunts of being a bursary student never had the effect of killing my drive but helped me transcend the limitations that were put in my way. The result is that I garnered more respect from the taunting kids at the end of the day without me trying to get their approval.
In the corporate world, the same thing is happening when the stigma is created with black suppliers who were fast-tracked in the procurement arena. I guess there is a similar stigma in the professional services like law and accounting, where some people are fast-tracked to partnership level to have other people tell them: “You got there because you are black and not because of merit.”
This is often done to question their credibility and suitability for the job. These types of comments can have a negative impact on the identity of these fast-tracked individuals to the point of them quitting and trying to prove themselves to their critics. This creates negative dignity for those with low esteem and who are going through an identity crisis.
This view is so pervasive that some young black people say that affirmative action and access programmes must be abolished and have only merit-based requirements applied to opportunities. I guess young black people support the scrapping of affirmative action and broad-based BEE programmes but they never experienced the cold face of exclusion, which weakens their credibility in making these calls.
There is nothing to be ashamed of in getting fast-tracked to a particular status, as long as there is substance that goes along with it. There is nothing dignified about going the long hard way because that is how others got there. It is like saying it is wrong to fly to Cape Town for two hours because people in the past used to drive for 18 hours.
There is no room for black people, women and disabled people to feel “negative dignity” because of receiving access to opportunities through a special programme. What matters at the end of the day is how they use those opportunities to create more.