BACK in the early 1990s, a colleague was elected to the governing board of an institute of higher education, the first woman to be so elected alongside the first black man.
At the cheese and wine afterwards, the pair were approached by a long-time board member, a middle-aged white man, undoubtedly the product of a private boarding school, full of charm and bonhomie.
“So!” he boomed. “Finally, we have representatives of both minorities on the board – great stuff!”
Unconscious attitudes like these pose a formidable barrier to the achievement of equality – which is the ultimate aim of all the acronyms (AA, EE, BEE and BBBEE) that disturb the peace at so many dinner parties and braais.
Those attitudes are crystal clear to those on the wrong side of them, yet not always so obvious to those who hold them. And they are incredibly tenacious. Forget about race for the moment – let’s talk gender.
Made in Dagenham was a great film about a true story: the few dozen upholstery machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory went out on strike because they’d been downgraded to semi-skilled status.
The strike leader makes this memorable little speech: “We're on the lowest rate of the entire bleeding factory despite the fact we got considerable skill.
"And there's only one possible reason for that. It's cause we're women. And in the workplace, women get paid less than men, no matter what skill they got! Which is why from now on, we got to demand a level playing field and rates of pay which reflect the job you do, not whether you got a d*ck or not!”
That strike led to a 1970 law which mandated equal pay for equal work in Britain, soon followed by equivalent laws across the developed world.
So 42 years on, surely we’re rid of the idea that “women get paid less than men”?
Nyet! The global gender pay gap has stuck at around 18% for 10 years (and according to the International Trade Union Confederation, at 34% South Africa has one of “The highest ‘unexplained gender pay gaps’ attributed to discriminatory practices”).
It’s just one of those eternal verities, isn’t it? women get paid less than men. Of course. Quod erat demonstrandum.
We all have unconscious "eternal verities" on gender, religion, race and so on (the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 includes pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, sexual orientation, age, disability, HIV status, conscience and political opinion).
And that’s why the act and that slew of acronyms is necessary; left to itself, good intentions or "the market" are not going to do anything to change biases we’re not even aware of.
The act seeks to “achieve equity in the workplace, by promoting equal opportunity and fair treatment in employment through the elimination of unfair discrimination.”
Employers are required to examine how their employment practices might reflect unconscious bias, as in “this job is just better done by our sort of people” - and consciously act to remove those prejudices.
That doesn’t mean a blanket denial of opportunities to white candidates – and that’s probably where Woolies went wrong: the wording of their ad did say “designated for African Black candidates”, if the version I’ve seen is accurate.
Perhaps the retail giant should have stuck to the more anodyne version found in about 80% of recruitment ads: "Please note, this is an EE appointment". (As one blogger said, is it a secret that companies have been hiring along these lines for years?)
Is this reverse racism?
Well, it’s a shifting of priorities which should mean that a white candidate will not be excluded but has to be better than his (or her) competitors when applying for a job – just as women have always had to deliver more and better to beat a man (recent interviews with a bunch of young execs has confirmed for me that this is still true, and astonishingly, the women concerned often simply accept this as a fact of life).
Likewise, a few decades back people in wheelchairs had to be quite exceptional to rise through the ranks.
In the past, given a dead-heating of candidates, the position would almost always have gone to the straight, able-bodied, white male. If he wasn’t something weird, like Buddhist. Or even worse, left-wing. (Eek! Bring me the garlic and wooden stakes.)
Is it about quotas?
Well, no: it’s about rejigging the composition of your workforce to better reflect the demographic realities. Employers are asked to create their own employment equity plan and create "numerical goals" for themselves.
This is simply sensible; few companies that don’t plan for this shift can expect to survive the next couple of decades.
Is it about hiring the unqualified?
Absolutely not. The act’s wording says affirmative action should “ensure that suitably qualified employees from designated groups have equal employment opportunity and are equitably represented”.
Is it difficult? Yes.
Does it evoke powerful emotions? Yes.
Is it being implemented well?
This is where we fall down, isn’t it? Great policies, poor implementation. We should – could – probably have been much further down the track than we are, were it not for certain types of counter-productive behaviour all round.
Must it be done? No question.
So let’s can the anger and channel all that energy into making it work, so we can put it all behind us.
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.