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Affirmative Action: Needed Change or Clumsy Bid to Correct Past?

October 7, 1995

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Affirmative action has given Castro Mafale a chance to fly for South Africa’s national airline, a dream he grew up believing was out of reach for blacks.

``But I have problems with the term `affirmative action,′ ″ the Soweto-born Mafale said during a break in training at South African Airways. ``People think you got things because you were pushed. But I’m actually capable of doing it.″

Barely started in South Africa, affirmative action already has evoked fears of a clumsy, misguided attempt to fix apartheid wrongs in the workplace. For most companies, it means hiring a showcase black manager or two and handing over a fancy title but few real powers.

White executives contend they cannot find enough qualified blacks. They scramble to poach affirmative action candidates from each other, bidding with six-figure salaries and company cars.

White workers, meanwhile, speak of ``lowered standards″ and ``reverse discrimination″ as they watch the beginning of the end of the race-based privileges they held under the racial separation rules of apartheid.

Blacks, meant to be the main beneficiaries, complain that they are treated as tokens, have their abilities questioned and their opportunities to learn and advance blocked.

In the United States, where affirmative action is under new attack, it is a question of the majority trying to redress discrimination against minorities. In South Africa, it is seen as crucial to the most important question of the post-apartheid era: How can the lives of the black majority be improved? How can the country move forward?

Apartheid’s discriminatory practices that reserved jobs for whites by law or custom created a stark contrast: The unemployment rate for the nation’s 30 million blacks is estimated at 40 percent, while it is just 6 percent for the 5 million whites.

About 80 percent of professional positions and 90 percent of middle and senior management posts are held by whites, according to a 1994 survey by FSA-Contact, a Johannesburg-based firm that advises business on labor issues.

Reversing the situation is proving complex and difficult.

President Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress campaigned with calls for increased opportunities for black, Asian, mixed-race and female South Africans. But it has acted cautiously since winning the country’s first all-race election last year.

The ANC wants to avoid alienating white workers _ including thousands of civil servants _ and business leaders it needs to maintain economic stability.

The government has avoided firing whites. But it has started bringing more blacks into the civil service and state-controlled companies by creating posts, encouraging early retirements and favoring ``disadvantaged″ candidates to fill vacancies.

David Lewis, an adviser to Labor Minister Tito Mboweni, said that instead of imposing race quotas on private business, the government prefers incentives _ such as steering state contracts to companies that hire and train blacks.

He called training the key to counteracting the effects of apartheid education, which prepared blacks only for low-skill jobs.

Drafting the state’s affirmative action policy will take until next year because of the ``systematic and comprehensive discrimination″ that exists, Lewis said.

Harriet Webster, an FSA-Contact researcher, agreed. After questioning white executives during three annual surveys, she said the government might have to impose hiring quotas to get business to seriously address the issue.

That prospect worries whites like Raymond Lamprecht, who runs his own ice cream business.

``They want this to be a totally black country,″ Lamprecht said of black-controlled unions aligned with the government. ``Of course whites were advantaged before. But two wrongs don’t make a right. ... Why don’t they let natural progression take its course?″

The affirmative-action debate in the United States has not gone unnoticed. Conservatives like Ferdi Hartzenberg, spokesman for the white Mine Workers Union, say that if the policy has not achieved racial parity in a country as rich as the United States, it has even less of a chance of working in South Africa.

But supporters of affirmative action can point to a success story closer to home. After the National Party took power in 1948, it deliberately hired and promoted white Afrikaners, as opposed to English-speaking whites.

Thanks to state-financed jobs at the railroads, postal office and phone company, the parents of many of the Afrikaners who now oppose preferential hiring for blacks were able to escape poverty and enter the middle class.

South African Airways was one of those state-supported bastions of hiring Afrikaners.

The airline, with a staff of more than 10,000 that is 70 percent white, now aims for a work force better reflecting South Africa’s 75 percent black population by 2000.

All but five of SAA’s pilots are white. But the airline created a pilot-training program last year whose participants are overwhelmingly black, Asian, mixed-race and female.

Capt. Chris Rademan, the training coordinator, shrugs off complaints that white children have a small chance of entering his class. Eight hundred whites applied for the current class of 18 and only two were accepted.

``We’re giving people a chance they never had before,″ said Rademan.

Despite his reservations, Mafale, the 25-year-old cadet pilot, believes affirmative action is needed.

As a boy, Mafale wanted to be an astronaut but never thought he would even get near an airplane cockpit. He cut short electrical engineering studies after he was accepted into the airline program.

Now he wants to tour the schools in Soweto _ the black township near Johannesburg where he grew up _ to encourage youngsters to dare to dream.

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