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World - Africa

South Africa tries affirmative action

Racial quota plan to become law

office workers
More black South Africans are filling white-collar jobs  
October 8, 1998
Web posted at: 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- South Africa's version of affirmative action, a plan as controversial here as it is in the United States, could soon become law in this black majority country.

The "employment equity" measure moving its way through parliament would give "preferences to people on the basis of race and ultimately require racial quotas," says Anthea Jeffery of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

South Africa's economy is still carved up between a few giant conglomerates, mainly controlled by whites, but four years after historic all-race elections black-owned firms are making gains.

To push that transition into the white-owned ranks and make up for the wrongs of the apartheid era, President Nelson Mandela's government backs a plan in which black South Africans "would need to constitute 69 percent of the workforce at all levels from the top down," says Jeffery.

Even without a new law, more and more South African blacks are filling white- collar jobs. But many feel not enough is being done. As one member of Mandela's African National Congress party said in parliament recently: "The shop floor is black and the boardrooms are white. This is the reality of South Africa."

It's a reality the government is determined to change. The job equity measure is designed to prevent discrimination, provide for affirmative action and bridge the wage gap between management and workers.

South Africa's railway system provides a glimpse of what's in store with the new legislation. Currently at the helm is Saki Macozoma, a former political prisoner who now is managing director of Transnet, the country's most powerful transport company.

soup kitchen
Petrus Bitter (left), an unemployed security guard, gets his food from a soup kitchen.  

In less than two years, the company's management has changed from 90 percent white to 23 percent black. "The first thing that you have to do is take people out. That is never an easy thing," Macozoma told CNN. "It's even worse when the people know that the reason you have to do that is, among other things, also to introduce people of a different color."

While Macozoma and the government defend affirmative action, an unemployed white South African named Petrus Bitter sees the new reality from the other side.

The trained security guard cannot find work and survives on donated food from a soup kitchen. "When you go for an interview and there are blacks as well, they'd rather take the blacks," he said.

Among blacks, hopes are high for the new legislation, but not all South Africans can share the dream.

Correspondent Lara Logan contributed to this report.

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