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Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jul 4 14:11:06 UTC 2005

>>From Business Day, Monday, 04 July 2005

Equal treatment for all  with a few exceptions
Linda Ensor

ONE of the supposed advantages of being of the weaker sex is that we can
compensate for years of discrimination at the workplace by leaving it as
soon as possible. Apparently not being as physically equipped as our beefy
male counterparts for the rigours of working until age 65, we are
entitled, if we are poor enough, to state support from the day we turn our
backs on the working world at age 60.

Imagine, then, the indignation aroused by the legal attempt of a group of
aged and unemployed Cape Town men no doubt infected by the egalitarianism
sweeping through our society to overturn this time-honoured principle by
demanding equal treatment. Why they ask, should women get preferential
treatment in the distribution of the states largesse while they are left
out in the cold? Why indeed?

The Cape Communicare Residents Association needless to say an all-male
body is taking Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya to the Cape High
Court for alleged unconstitutional gender discrimination and unequal
practices. Moreover, it says the retention of the distinction goes against
an international trend to equalise benefits for men and women. The class
action it has instituted has presented the social development department
with a legal conundrum and led to some mental gymnastics by its legal
experts as they prepared to oppose it.

We are told that the reason this historic provision was introduced into
the law was to compensate women for their discrimination in the workplace.
Most employees in formal employment are men, so the argument goes, and
most of the unemployed are women. Males dominate the top echelons of the
corporate and social hierarchy, with women bunched into the low-paid,
menial work at the bottom.

Whatever the current realities, however, there can be little doubt that
back then in 1967 when the still applicable Aged Persons Act was passed in
Parliament, the grey-suited, predominantly white and male legislators were
not raging feminists in disguise. At the time, womens place was in the
home, except if they were black, of course, in which case they did not get
much of a state old-age pension, if any, anyway.

The men of the time probably thought that the weaker sex needed to be
indulged, and that the workplace needed to be regulated as a male
preserve. However, a department official hotly denied that there was any
such assumption of weakness in maintaining the distinction women lived
much longer than men. Stamina is not an issue at all, he insisted.

Clambering over decades to find a post facto rationale for the
distinction, the official latched on to the constitutional provision which
permits affirmative action in favour of the previously disadvantaged,
including women. In fact, the Older Persons Bill now before Parliament
endorses the existing age distinction for men and women to qualify for a
state old-age pension. The grey suits must be heaving in their graves.

The arguments for retaining the distinction seem more pragmatic than
principled. Reducing the retirement age of men to 60 years would cost the
state an additional R2bn and affect the whole economy. Increasing the
retirement age for women would worsen poverty by depriving millions of a
basic source of income with which to support themselves and their
grandchildren. Of the 2-million receiving old age pensions, about 70% are

This might be all very well in general, but of little help to the old men
from Cape Town without jobs and without state support. It is not only
disgruntled old men this side of the mountain, however, who are attempting
to turn the concept of equal treatment upside down.  Equality for the
African National Congress-controlled Western Cape education department
means equal access for all language groups to all schools, regardless of
the policy of the school governing board.

When the Afrikaans-medium Mikro Primary School refused to comply with a
directive by Northern Cape education MEC Cameron Dugmore that it take on
21 English-speaking pupils, Dugmore took the matter to the Cape High
Court. He lost the first time round, and again last week in the Supreme
Court of Appeal.

There might be a social engineering rationale to the departments view, as
it would ensure all pupils in a catchment area are able to attend a
conveniently located school. But the courts found that the legally
entrenched right of school governing bodies to decide their own schools
language policy took precedence.

With most of the majority coloured population in the province being
Afrikaans speakers, the decision by a school governing board to implement
a single-medium language policy is not racism in disguise. The departments
commitment to equal access, however, was a disguise for its centralising
ambitions. All is not what it seems when it comes to equality.

Ensor is political correspondent.

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