Ricochet News

Opinion: BEE is understandable

Opinion:  BEE is understandable

In the wake of Affirmative Action policies, such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), having become seemingly embedded within South African society today, there are many, particularly within the white population, who are expressing great dismay at what they see as attempts to racially segregate South Africa in a direction opposite to that of apartheid.

In looking into current policies around the concept of “affirmative action” in South Africa, one cannot simply look into a “black and white” past wrapped in “apartheid”, but instead one can look deeper into South African society in realising that preference within it, particularly of an economic nature, can go beyond skin colour.

Tension between the English and the Boers

From the Trekboers moving from the Cape Colony to Natal where the Republic of Natalia was formed in 1839, and later annexed by the British in 1842, to the fears of Afrikaners losing their independence to the British in Transvaal, in the late 19th century, as a result of the discovery of gold, subsequently leading to the disenfranchisement of many “uitlanders” as defensive measures, the historical tension between the English and Afrikaners is something which is strongly felt when observing their shared past. The Anglo-Boer War, in particular, testifies to such tension.

After the South African War, the Afrikaners were left desolated within the demoralising reality of the Scorched Earth policy and the concentration camps for Boer women and children.

All in all, it is fairly safe to say that, at the time, the level of discrimination that the English showed  the Boers was of a particularly brutal nature.

Afrikaans “Affirmative Action”

When Hertzog established the National Party in 1914, just four-years after the Union was formed, and in recognising the levels of inequality between the Afrikaners and the English, he would go on to introduce a “Two Stream” policy. It was a policy which set out to witness the separate development of English and Afrikaners along their respective streams in facilitating the development of Afrikaners to obtain a position in South Africa that was on par with the English. The fear was that, if a single stream was maintained for white South Africans, the Afrikaners would become assimilated into the culture of their white-imperial brethren.

Included in the Afrikaner stream of development was the economic consideration that was paid to them. In other words, it was strongly believed that Afrikaners should proudly demonstrate economic self-sufficiency within white South Africa.

Only nine years after being established, and having gone through the conciliatory intentions, between English and Afrikaners, of Louis Botha, Hertzog would win the 1924 general election. This came at the expense of Jan Smuts who had just two-years earlier crushed the Rand Revolt along the Witwatersrand region. Ironically enough, much of this rebellion was due to white miners losing their jobs at the expense of black workers, not because the “prosperity” of black workers was envisaged, but simply because the Chamber of Mines viewed them as cheaper labour as opposed to white workers. This opens a whole new debate, which will be avoided in this article, as it begins to question traditional issues regarding race in the context of capitalistic thinking, a concept continuously bearing much relevance in issues of inequality, especially class inequality.  

Another example of Afrikaner favouritism can be found in the formation of the Broederbond, a secret-Afrikaner society, in 1918. Its objectives were to promote Afrikaner Nationalism, to preserve Afrikaner culture, to support Afrikaner economic growth and to acquire significant influence in the South African government.

It was in 1948, after the National Party, under D.F. Malan, came to power, that this “Afrikaner affirmative-action” would manifest itself in white South African society. In the 1950’s, the “Afrikanerisation” in South Africa started to become ever more apparent, with state entities demonstrating such a phenomenon the most. Whether in the Defence Force, the Police, on the railways or in the post office, Afrikaners were sure to dominate while, in general, English-speaking South Africans were sidelined.


It can be argued, at least in theory, that the concept of Affirmative Action in contemporary South Africa is understandable, especially in a historical framework. Other groups in South Africa have implemented policies which were intended to assist “previously disadvantaged” groups, as has been seen.

Many look to apartheid as being a direct parallel to the current affirmative action policies in South Africa, but in reverse. However, it is argued that a more accurate parallel, though not absolute, can be seen in the development of Afrikaner Nationalism in the country, along with its form of preference towards the Afrikaner people.

In an interview with another Professor at a well-respected South African university,it was stated that, whilst one cannot necessarily draw direct parallels between Afrikaner Nationalism and Affirmative Action in current South Africa, the two do hold some general similarities in realising the almost instinctive desire to alleviate and rectify any perceived imbalance within a previously disadvantaged group.

Apartheid represented a blatant barring of the majority population group who were excluded from many sectors in the economy. However, the case between the Afrikaners and the English, during which a continuous system of segregation towards the blacks was shown, saw Afrikaners being given preference over the English, despite the intention of “advancing” the white population as a whole.

The current affirmative action policies intend to “advance” the entire South African population as a whole...  

According to Prof. Lekgoathi of Wits University, the reservation of jobs in contemporary South Africa is not supposed to be race based, but rather based on the notion of correcting the imbalances of the past. While apartheid, as it was known, might cease to exist in a constitutional sense, the stark reality is that racial segregation and inequality in South Africa is still rife.

On the other side, though, BEE has been said to be achieving nothing more than facilitating the creation of minority black elites, which in turn has been argued to therefore bypass those which it is intended to assist.   

Having mentioned this, the issue of class comes into the picture whilst the question of race comes under fire in examining the current economic empowerment which is currently taking place in South Africa.

In interviewing several English gentlemen who served in the South African Defence Force during apartheid and the Angolan Bush War, all within the years of conscription for young South African men, it appears to be evident that Afrikaners were somewhat privileged as opposed to the English speakers. Rank was said to be a lot easier to achieve as an Afrikaner and various other privileges were arguably based on what language one spoke, with Afrikaans being the language of success in this case. Furthermore, it has even been stated that the National Party “looked out for its own” much like the ANC itself is believed by some to be doing today.


In concluding, apartheid intended to openly discriminate against certain population groups, including the majority population, while Afrikaner favouritism was blended into a system of promoting the prosperity of “all” white South Africans.

Therefore, current affirmative action policies in South Africa, such as BEE, are paralleled more by Afrikaner Nationalism in that both were envisaged around the intentions of correcting a perceived imbalance within a society, with black South Africans “catching up” to whites and with Afrikaners “catching up” to the English.

It would appear that the “pendulum of time”, being defined by history itself, moves from one side to the next, alleviating imbalances within groups on each side and echoing of those ancient words: “An eye for an eye...”

Despite the fact that Afrikaners once considered themselves previously disadvantaged, blacks in South Africa have, for much longer, found themselves in such a situation. Therefore, with equal rights having been granted to black South Africans, and with the ANC, the hero of apartheid, having come to power, is it not understandable, if not inevitable, for black South Africans to wish to correct their perceived imbalances?

In closing off, and as was briefly seen within this article, an issue that has possibly been overlooked in South Africa is the issue of class, an issue which is arguably blinded by the deeply imbedded concept of race,  a concept firmly based on much of South Africa’s past.


Image courtesy of: guardianlv.com