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Introduction and Rationale

Globally, Affirmative Action (AA) has been used widely both as a policy tool as well as for social redress and transformation. Far from being simply common cause, in a number of geographical contexts, arguments for its moral and instrumental rationales have not waned (Guillebeau 1999, Hall 2004, Htun 2004, Human 1996, Moses 2010, Sacks 1996). For example, in South Africa, as is the case elsewhere, AA has generated renewed public debate, discussion and dissent (most recently in the case taken up by the trade union Solidarity against the Tshwane Municipality)1. Scholars and activists on both sides of the issue have vociferously voiced their support or dissent in various media. Taking up the debate, Bentley and Habib (2008: 24) conclude:

The implementation of redress since 1994 has both positive and negative intended and unintended consequences. It has contributed to ensuring a more demographic representative nation, although this has not been undertaken as effectively or even in the form [that] was envisaged by the legislation. The redress initiative may also have reified racial identity and as a result inhibited the emergence of conditions for the realisation of a cosmopolitan citizenship.

Like most concepts, AA defies (and possibly resists) full encapsulation. Although much has been written about and spoken on AA, one of the most contentious, controversial, and critical questions regarding the concept still remains: What is the matter with AA? Phrasing the question this way implies that AA has much to do with ideological, philosophical and indeed practical [End Page 1] implications. In extending this question to South Africa, the question becomes: What are the specific current meanings of AA in the context of social transformation and redress in the post-1994 era? This question inspires consistent interest in the public conscience in South Africa, and it is in this regard that this journal and others in the field have intermittently focused on the various dimensions of and perspectives on AA in the country. Many contributions have discussed the unintended consequence of AA, including the ‘racial bargain’ and the perpetuation of racial prejudice, as well as the effect of the globalizing market on the implementation of reconciliation polices (see for example, Alexander 2007, Durrheim et al 2007, Guy 2004, Montalti and Bellengère 2008, Southall, 2007). Similarly, some have maintained that nation-building efforts and responses to the social question are interlinked, and that there is no concrete divide between the national and social question, with the consequence that different redistributive struggles might require separate agendas (Mkandawire 2009).

It was with the above context in mind that our ‘autobiography of the question’ (Miller 1995), our interest in AA in the South African context, was born. The special issue emerges out of a 2010 international conference, A South African Dream: Negotiating Affirmative Action for Social Cohesion in the Transformative State: Policy, platitudes, progress and prospects. Examining cutting-edge issues in the ongoing delineation of the parameters of AA (as concept, policy, and as practice), the conference was motivated by, among other factors, the fact that the issue has not received much political and policy attention, and that at best it tends to be minimized in the national dialogue. The only exceptions to this consistent minimization tend to be the episodic attention occasioned by the annual reports of the Employment Equity Commission (See, for example, Samantha Enslin-Payne ‘Days of crying wolf about equity are numbered’, Sunday Independent (Business Report Section), 1 August, 2010:9; Chris Barron, ‘Playing the numbers game’, Sunday Times (Business Times), 15 August 2010: 6 and Mpho Sibanyoni, ‘Firms are failing black youth’, City Press (Business Section), 1 August 2010:3).

Several questions emerged from the framing of the title of the conference. The first related to the parameters or the borders of the dream vis-à-vis the geographical/political borders of South Africa. For example, in the South African context or in the South African national policy space, would this refer to the progressive realisation of an African Dream or a South African Dream? What are the constitutional and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 1-10
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-01
Open Access
No
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