As we reflect on June 16, during this Youth Month, the day on which South Africans are called to remember and commemorate the young people who sacrificed their lives in the struggle against apartheid, we find ourselves reflecting on whether their legacy truly does live on, or whether the impact of their sacrifices has to some extent been forgotten, if not squandered.
In 1998, the South African Employment Equity Act (EEA) was passed with the intent of promoting equal opportunity in employment for all individuals, particularly those who were previously disadvantaged because of race, gender, or disability. The purpose of the Act was to address the legacy of apartheid and to bring about transformative change in the South African workplace, ensuring that all individuals were able to participate fully and equally in employment opportunities. In so doing, the Act aimed to advance and embed the spirit of those youth that stood up against oppression and inequality in South Africa in a way that enabled economic inclusion, in addition to political inclusion.
Sadly, 25 years on, the impact of the EEA has fallen short of its intent. While the Act has put in place mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on employment equity progress, there has been limited progress toward addressing systemic inequalities and achieving truly transformed workplaces.
The pace of progress on transformation has been painfully slow, and there continues to be a lack of representation of individuals from previously disadvantaged groups, particularly in senior management positions and in certain industries. In short, corporate South Africa is more reflective of the economically privileged population rather than the economically active population, with boardrooms and senior leadership teams still being predominantly populated with white people and men, in particular.
This has unsurprisingly left government and regulators feeling like their only option is to firm up the regulatory landscape and increase the “stick”, leading to the implementation of sectoral targets with punitive measures possible for non-compliance. Again expectedly, this has not galvanised organisations into embracing transformation. Is it time to change the narrative by drawing closer to the actual intent of this legislative instrument?
Rather than seeing the introduction of sectoral targets as a much-needed catalyst to start fostering sectoral collaboration on the non-competitive aspects of employment equity and, in so doing, to identify innovative ways to speed up the pace of transformation and economic inclusion in our country, disappointedly, there still seems to be a disproportionate focus on pushing back on the process and construct of an Act.
The question that needs to be deeply explored is why? Why, twenty-five years after the EEA was passed into law, do we still feel like we have made such limited progress?
One critical reason for the limited impact of the EEA is the underlying reluctance of some employers to fully embrace the spirit of the Act - the deeply held fears, resentments, prejudices, and biases that lie hidden beneath the surface of political correctness. While these deep beliefs and emotions may not be spoken aloud, they are real and tangible and result in some employers being resistant to implementing strategies designed to promote equality in the workplace and failing to commit the necessary resources to achieve employment equity targets.
At the end of the day, the EEA is merely a tool to enable transformation and social justice, and like any tool, it is only as effective as its user. If the user does not want to learn how to use the tool properly or refuses to use the tool at all, it cannot be effective. Unfortunately, within the context of an exceedingly difficult and constrained social, political, and economic environment, the “plausible” narrative and excuses for not learning to use and leverage this tool are not in short supply.
In one’s process of reflecting on the EEA, I have spoken about the EEA in the context of organisations, as the EEA specifically addresses the workplace. But ultimately, organisations do not exist as separate living entities. Deconstruct any and every organisation, and what you will find is a collection of individuals - people with the whole myriad and spectrum of complexity and emotion that comes with being human.
And so, ultimately, EE is not a legislative or compliance conversation about numbers; it is a human conversation about human beings. It is a conversation about people who have suffered and continue to suffer the pain of being systematically marginalised, dehumanised, and excluded – forever on the outside looking in. It is a conversation about young people who have no hope and excitement for the future because they have no hope of finding employment and building a good life for themselves. It is a conversation about children who face racist bullying in schools at the hands of other children who have never been taught to do better or be better.
It takes deep humanity to stand up and stand against issues of inhumanity. The limited impact of the EEA is the price we are paying for dehumanisation, the cost of avoiding the real conversation of what the path to true humanisation needs to be.
Those original youths on that June day in 1976 were not fuelled by legislation. They were powered by passion, by principle, by a strong belief in doing the right thing. Their humanity was non-negotiable - and so they refused to be dehumanised or to lay their humanity down in the face of inhumanity - even though they paid the ultimate price. For the intent of the EEA to translate into tangible social justice impacts, it is this spirit of theirs that each of us needs to connect with. We need to connect with our own and each other’s humanity.
Tabea Kabinde is the Commissioner for Employment Equity