Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Constructing Racial Hierarchies of Skill - Experiencing Affirmative Action in a South African Organisation: A Qualitative Review

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Constructing Racial Hierarchies of Skill - Experiencing Affirmative Action in a South African Organisation: A Qualitative Review

Article excerpt


Democratic South Africa is characteristic of massive social and economic inequalities, which are based largely on racial lines (Durrheim, Mtose & Brown, 2011; Franchi, 2003), most of which stem from the apartheid era. Whilst it is acknowledged that society is becoming desegregated and inequality deracialised, the extent to which racial transformation is actually occurring is debateable. And, whilst attempts to iron out historic injustices are being made, past patterns of inequality and segregation continue to feature and, at the same time, 'new patterns have emerged that continue to be structured around race' (Durrheim et al., 2011, p. 21). In an attempt to address historic injustices, the South African government has made concerted efforts to 'deracialise' South Africa politically, economically and socially, most notably through the use of affirmative action (AA) measures within the labour market. The rationale behind this is that, since the implementation of the Employment Equity Act (1998), AA provides a platform from which to change the demographic weighting of disadvantage in the workplace.

Efforts, in the form of AA, to integrate South Africa's historically disadvantaged into the labour force have been met with practical and ideological barriers from all areas of society. Given these barriers, the current research is important for at least four reasons.

Firstly, there is relative lack of research that qualitatively examines AA in South Africa, and even less from within the discursive tradition (Durrheim, Boettiger, Essack, Maarschalk & Ranchod, 2007; Durrheim & Dixon, 2005). Furthermore, much of the research in this area tends to be one-sided in that it is largely focused on the perceptions of white South Africans. There is a pervasiveness of negativity surrounding AA. This negativity, despite being around for many years, is still a fervently contested and controversial subject. Kennedy-Dubourdieu (2006, p. 2) states that AA is a social policy that 'engenders an inflamed debate and opinion polls consistently reveal that practically everyone has an opinion on the subject, even though there is a great deal of confusion over what the policy actually entails'. For many employees, AA is seen only as a compromise that, in itself, perpetuates the discrimination it seeks to address. Expressions of fear, racial tension and discrimination still surface and, as Romano (2007) suggests, whilst many South Africans claim to be in favour of AA, AA policies still generate considerable amounts of criticism.

Given the varied experiences of AA, this research sought to give expression to people's subjective realities on the issue by looking at how everyday practices function contextually to give meaning to social and psychological life, specifically related to the ways in which we frame and conceptualise our experiences of AA. This study thus aimed to explore AA from a social constructionist orientation with a focus on Potter and Wetherell's discursive psychology.

The language that we use every day is a 'dynamic form of social practice which constructs the social world, individual selves and identity' (Potter, 1996, p. 118). Given this, a second reason for this research was to examine how the way in which people use language can function in perpetuating historic privilege for some, and historic disadvantage for others.

Given South Africa's unique socio-political terrain, there is a need to critically engage with AA from a perspective with which to locate forms of 'meaning' within the broader social and cultural context that informs subjective realities (Burr, 1995; Edwards, 1997; Edwards & Potter, 1992; Potter & Wetherell, 1987). To date, only a few researchers have approached AA from this perspective (Augustinos et al., 2005; Duncan, 2003; Franchi, 2003; Kravitz et al., 1996; Stevens, 2003).

A third reason for the current research is that most AA- related research from the discursive tradition seems to draw from related studies of race and race relations, with fewer studies looking at AA specifically (Augustinos & Every, 2007; Durrheim & Dixon, 2005; Van Dijk, 1993). …

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