JOHANNESBURG — Hans Schoeman fancied himself one of South Africa's leading labor experts. And few in his profession would probably disagree.
After 32 years as a labor lawyer, three university degrees, and stints with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Mr. Schoeman considers himself a man who had a lot to offer his country.
But Schoeman, a white male, was passed over recently to serve on the labor arbitration body that will replace the present Industrial Court, on which he serves as a presiding officer. To his astonishment, candidates were selected who were black but did not have university qualifications or anything near his experience.
Schoeman has accused Labor Minister Tito Mboweni of unfair labor practices, in none other than the court on which Schoeman serves. His argument is that the new black majority government has created a system of discrimination that is as bad as the old one under apartheid rule.
"For sure, I am one of the most experienced people in my field," Schoeman says. "I have nothing against these other candidates. But they are inexperienced compared to me. I say affirmative action does not empower the minister or any employer to deviate from vested labor norms."
Schoeman's lament is often heard among white males. South Africa's first black majority government came to power three years ago pledging a more equal society. President Nelson Mandela has vowed to redress 300 years of white domination over the 5-to-1 black majority.
Section 8 of the post-apartheid Constitution guarantees equality before the law and prohibits unfair discrimination. It also sanctions affirmative action. While some critics find this to be an inherent contradiction, others say it is necessary to promote formerly suppressed blacks.
The interpretation of what affirmative action means has spawned the sort of debate that has simmered in the United States for decades.
Few in the new South Africa would dare say publicly that they are opposed to affirmative action. Companies large and small have been scrambling to find black managers and make their firms more racially representative. Countless blacks have been given job and training opportunities unheard of just three years ago.
But policymakers are faced with the dilemma of how to eradicate unfair discrimination without entrenching a new version of it. Proponents of quotas argue that they ensure that the racial composition of society is reflected in the workplace. Detractors say that affirmative action can lead to lowered job standards.
People like Schoeman are heartened by the Pretoria High Court's landmark ruling earlier this month that the Department of Justice's affirmative-action policy implemented in 1995 discriminated against white males.
The court accepted an application by the Public Servants' Association to declare the appointment of 30 senior state attorneys invalid because only women and blacks had been appointed. The judge ruled that the appointments were not in line with the law, which demands an efficient, qualified public administration.
Concerns about reverse discrimination have grown particularly strident from interest groups such as the small Democratic Party, whose white urban professional constituency worries it could lose much under the new system.
For white critics of affirmative action, there is an abundance of apocryphal stories about ridiculously inflated salaries of black executives who are paid more than their bosses or poached by a competing company almost as soon as they are hired.
But concern is growing among blacks, too, who worry that only a small black elite is benefiting from empowerment initiatives. A recent survey by the Helen Suzman Foundation, an independent think tank in Johannesburg, found that support for affirmative action has dropped in recent months. It said that 52 percent of blacks preferred to see appointments made on merit even if some people did not make progress.
While the arguments may sound familiar to those in the US, South Africa's case is different. Here it is the majority, not a minority, that is being empowered. Until recently, South Africa's highly protected economy lacked a business culture of competition, and whites were not given jobs on merit alone.
A dispassionate view about this passionate issue is taken by Geoff Heald, a senior lecturer in labor relations at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University. He says remarkable strides have been made in a very short span and much has been learned from countries like the US. Growing pains are normal, and much will be smoothed out with time, he says. It has to; otherwise, deep racial conflict could result, he says.
"It is very easy to rubbish affirmative action. Yes, surely there are high levels of insecurity over implementation of the process. White fears are very real," he says.
"However, affirmative action is an imperative in South Africa.... If torn away [it] could result in tremendous conflict."