The principles behind affirmative action are pretty basic: Certain people have been kept from enjoying the bounties of society and as a result we need to have policies to provide redress for those inequities. But of course in order to provide that redress certain people are going to feel as if they are going to be denied what they have earned and they are going to cast blame on the affirmative action policy. Even ardent defenders of affirmative action recognize the potential clash of fairness and even its detractors have to recognize that equality of opportunity is meaningless without a way to make that opportunity realistic for people who have been denied it.
(I’ll reveal my own prejudices here as well — affirmative action detractors also have to get over their sense of entitlement — anyone who does not get into the college of their choice did not miss out by one slot given the nature of admissions yields. To fill a class of 100 at even elite colleges requires many, many hundreds more to be given admission — if you did not get in to that pool you were not 1001st in the admissions process, you were hundreds of slots lower, behind plenty of folks who did not get in because of affirmative action.)
Thus in South Africa affirmative action will continue to be a contentious issue. This debate will flare nowhere more prominently than in university admissions. One of the issues in South Africa, as in the United States is that it tends to recognize race but not class so that an elite group of black beneficiaries emerges while masses of poor blacks remain outside the system looking in. There are few easy answers, but it is hard to take seriously arguments about “merit” in a system where those claiming merit were also the chief beneficiaries of the disparities of apartheid. And yes, those entering college today grew up in the post-apartheid era, but their parents and grandparents created, supported, and upheld that system and it is difficult to take seriously arguments that 1994 represented instant equality whereby all South Africans were on equal ground, an argument that just happens to redound to the benefit of a tiny slice of white South Africans.
*Posted on africa.foreignpolicyblogs.com