In die nuus

The distribution of higher educational qualifications in South Africa: EAP versus reality

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

By Gerhard van Onselen, Economic Researcher: Solidarity Research Institute

Solidarity Trade Union is widely recognised for its involvement in a number of legal challenges to the prevailing implementation of affirmative action (AA). At its heart, Solidarity’s position opposes a purely mathematical interpretation of AA, where a person’s race carries a disproportionately large weight in decisions of appointment, promotion or laying off of staff.

Taken to the extreme, a purely race-driven mathematical implementation of AA intends to coercively “transform” the social realities of all industries, businesses, institutions and occupational levels to be completely reflective of the national racial demographics.

Sound personnel decisions have to consider a wide range of criteria, including a person’s formal education, training, aptitudes and experience, along with many others. While the present legislative environment does require considerations of race under specified commercial conditions, it is reasonable to assume that race cannot be the only consideration.

In this article we focus on the racial distribution of educational qualifications among people of working age in the 2011 Census. The current racial composition of the economically active population (EAP) is compared with the racial distribution of educational qualifications.

It is concluded that a significant mismatch exists between the EAP and the distribution of higher educational qualifications. This mismatch supports the notion that race cannot be the only deciding variable in proper personnel decisions.

Mathematical AA and the national EAP

The EAP refers to people of working age, from 15 to 64 years of age who are working, or unemployed people willing, able and seeking to work. Table 1 illustrates the EAP for 2015 Q2. In 2015 Q2 around 21,1 million people were considered part of the national labour force.

The most recent EAP includes 16,2 million Black Africans, 2,1 million Coloureds, 570 000 Indians/Asians and 2,2 million Whites. On a percentage basis, South Africa’s 2015 Q2 workforce was distributed as follows: 76,9% Black African, 10,2% Coloured, 2,7% Indian/Asian and 10,2% White.

A coercive mathematical implementation of AA targets in line with the race proportions of the national EAP would aspire that every sphere of the local working world reflect the above percentages.

Table 1: National Economically Active Population

  National Economically Active Population
Population group Black African Coloured Indian/Asian White Total
Employed + unemployed 16 203 367 2 143 865 569 450 2 159 579 21 076 262
EAP (2015 Q2) (weighted scores; QLFS data) 76.9% 10.2% 2.7% 10.2% 100%

How many educational qualifications are available to the labour force?

The absolute totals of different qualifications indicate that relatively few people in proportion to the EAP have completed qualifications higher than Grade 12.[1] The 2011 Census figures show that about 12,8 million individuals of working age have obtained a highest qualification equivalent to Grade 12 or higher. Of these, only 3,7 million qualifications are qualifications higher than Grade 12.

Table 2 illustrates the absolute numbers of qualifications among those of working age, along with the racial representation of each of the levels of qualifications.  The qualifications higher than Grade 12 are comprised of approximately 2,3 million certificates, diplomas, higher diplomas or equivalent, 770 000 Bachelor degrees or equivalent, 276 000 honours degrees or equivalent, and 300 000 higher degrees or equivalent.

Table 2: Racial distribution of highest educational qualifications

Racial composition of different educational qualification categories

The racial distribution of the qualifications higher than Grade 12 deviates significantly from the racial proportions of the EAP. Table 2 and Figure 1 illustrate the differences for higher qualifications including certificates, diplomas, degrees and higher degrees. Table 3 presents the underlying calculations.

Compared to the other race groups, the White and Indian/Asian population groupings represent a significantly larger proportion of formal higher qualifications than their proportional racial representation in the EAP.

The Black African and Coloured groupings represent significantly less than their proportional representation seen in the EAP. Higher formal qualifications are not distributed according to EAP’s racial percentages. A mismatch clearly exists between the EAP and formal qualifications higher than Grade 12.

Such a mismatch presents a significant problem to designated employers who have to weigh the availability of people with the required formal educational qualifications with AA race targets. Government mandating racial representation in line with the EAP as an increasingly deciding variable under these conditions could bring forth a number of harmful consequences.

One potentially harmful consequence is that individuals without the necessary qualifications may be appointed solely in order to meet race targets. Another is that people with relevant formal qualifications will become progressively underemployed. A loss of people with relevant skills is another possible outcome.

All of these outcomes may create a situation where much-needed skills and expertise do not flow in the economy where they are required. This is highly damaging to business productivity and the delivery of public services, and on a wide enough scale could be detrimental to the economy as a whole.

Figure 1: Racial distribution of higher qualifications


A person’s level of educational achievement is an important variable typically considered highly relevant in personnel decisions. In South Africa, this attribute is not racially distributed according to the racial proportions of the EAP and a mismatch clearly exists between the EAP and the distribution of higher qualifications.

Ignoring the underlying realities of the workforce and the distribution of educational qualifications in favour of increasingly coercive mathematical AA targets, is likely to compound inefficiencies and spur on damaging consequences. Of these, the likely increases in underemployment, inefficient service delivery, and the emigration of well-educated people are especially worrisome.

Consequently, race can never be the sole criterion if proper personnel decisions are to be taken. Proper personnel decisions require that as many as possible of the underlying realities of the labour force be considered. The reality of the distribution of educational qualifications certainly qualifies for consideration in this regard.

Table 3: Highest qualifications reported: Age 15 to 64

[1] The absolute totals of completed highest qualifications must be interpreted with caution. The forces of supply and demand differ among various qualifications and change continually. Without proper context it is impossible to say whether there are too many or too few of a specific category of qualifications. Such estimations fall outside the scope of this discussion.





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