Since its introduction, affirmative action has become an increasingly controversial policy to address labour market inequalities in South Africa. Yet, in spite of this public debate, nationally representative, empirical research on patterns of opposition to and support for the redress policy remains relatively circumscribed. In this article, attitudinal data collected over the past decade is employed to examine the factors that influence these perceptions, and the extent to which they have been changing. The results reveal that attitudes to race- and gender-based affirmative action in employment have been favourable on aggregate over the last decade. The specified beneficiary of affirmative action appears to matter, with more positive evaluations evident when the policies target women and disabled persons than when racial disadvantage is targeted. Furthermore, while there is a broad-based, resolute belief in racial equality in principle, there is less agreement on the implementation of particular redress policies. Affirmative action for instance enjoys less support than compensatory policies or those focused on addressing class-based disadvantage. An element of self-interest appears to be informing evaluations among designated beneficiary groups, with black respondents more inclined than other population groups to support race-based affirmative action and women more partial to gender-based affirmative action than men. While the beneficiaries of affirmative action have typically been the better educated and skilled among the designated groups, highest support for this policy is reported by the more marginalized and vulnerable who are least likely to have personally benefitted from affirmative action implementation to date. This support may reflect a sense of collective self-interest or possibly an expectation that this redress policy will bring benefits in the future. Finally, views on whether affirmative action is producing a more skilled workforce and socially cohesive society are again broadly positive, though the profile of those believing in such outcomes deviates somewhat from those supporting affirmative action generally. In this instance, those least likely to have gained from affirmative action in practice are those least confident in the policy’s outcomes, possibly due to a gap between perceived performance of affirmative action policy and expected benefits.


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pp. 1-30
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