South Africa’s new BEE targets a ‘small issue’ – ‘not about race’: department

 ·14 Jun 2023

The Department of Employment and Labour says that the new proposed employment equity targets determined by the minister are “not about race”.

Speaking to union representatives this week, the department’s deputy director for employment equity, Niresh Singh, said the targets are “also about including people with disabilities, Coloured people, Indian people, White women and so forth.”

Singh said that when talking about employment equity and affirmative action, critics make a big deal about what he calls a “small issue”.

“People only take one small issue, but change it into a big issue. They think Employment Equity is only about race, and that is not true,” he said.

The deputy director told unions to work with and consult with employers in the country to ensure that the targets are met and that all shortfalls in demographic representation are addressed, including in terms of disability and gender.

“Workplace activism is where unions are important to play a critical role, and the fact that we have consultative forums, it means that all of us have the responsibility in implementing the Employment Equity Act and including the Affirmative Action,” he said.

Racial targets

Despite Singh’s assertion that the country’s new employment equity laws and proposed targets are not about race, the regulations go to great lengths and have an incredibly detailed focus on making sure 18 major sectors in South Africa employ workers based on race.

The laws, assented to by President Cyril Ramaphosa in April, empower the minister of employment and labour to set race-based targets for each sector in the country, which need to be achieved in five years.

Failure to meet the targets could result in hefty penalties, including millions of rands in fines.

Even though the laws are not yet in effect, the minister has gone ahead and published these targets for public comment. The department has said the targets will ensure that businesses, industries and sectors in the country reflect the demographic makeup of the people.

The proposed targets present 10,800 data points, presenting racial demographic targets for 18 sectors, across four job categories, covering five racial groups (including one catch-all ‘black’ category).

As Singh describes, the targets are also split among gender, and include a single flat target of 2.5% for persons with disabilities – but the overwhelming bulk of the targets focus singularly on race.

Critics have argued that the targets also amount to racial quotas, which are unlawful in South Africa.

The department has hit back at this, saying that the targets cannot be quotas as they are flexible, businesses can be exempted, and the timelines give space for the sectors to achieve them.

However, unions like Solidarity have argued that there is no realistic way that any business can achieve the targets, given the state of South Africa’s economy.

The union presented a deep-dive impact study on the targets, noting that businesses would have to expand at unrealistic rates to meet the targets without firing anyone. The only path left would be to fire and rehire based on race – a de facto quota system.

The union, opposition parties and other business interest groups are taking the legal route to challenge the new laws.

The targets are no longer open for public comment, having closed on 12 June.

Read: Deadline for South Africa’s strict new BEE rules draws near

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