Wage discrepancy highlights discrimination at work

WHEN I joined the Cape Herald - a newspaper aimed at the “coloured” community - as a young reporter in 1980, I earned R200 a month. It was not a bad salary for a 20-year-old youngster who grew up on the Cape Flats.

However, a few months after I began my journalism career, we discovered white staff were earning more than double what we and other blacks throughout the country were earning.

We went on strike and, after holding out for more than a month, management gave in to our demands and my salary doubled to R400 a month. A month or so later, I received a merit increase which pushed my salary up to R500 a month, and I felt like the richest man on the planet but realised the salary I was earning was normal for people who were not black.

I was reminded of this during the week when I listened to talk show host Eusebius McKaiser and his guests discussing the discrepancy between the salaries of black and white professionals and between males and females.

Jaen Beelders, managing director of Analytico, which monitors what people earn, said on the show that white professionals earn an average of R22000 a month versus the R8000 paid to black professionals.

In the same week, John Maytham talked on his show about the plight of black professionals in Cape Town. Maytham’s guest was Valerie Tapela, who did her M Phil in coaching management at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Her research tried to answer the question: “Where are the black professionals in Cape Town?”

She concluded that the city is stuck in the ways of the “old order” and racial discrimination is still rife.There is no easy answer to why Cape Town appears to be unfriendly towards black Africans. Part of it has to be because of the city's history, which was a “coloured preferential” area during apartheid. But more than 23 years into our democracy, we have no justification for using apartheid as an excuse for making anyone feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in our beautiful city.

As Capetonians, we need to begin to embrace our South African and African identities. We must start feeling comfortable with being part of our country and our continent. In the same way, people who might be from other parts of our country and our continent should also feel comfortable in our city.

I have been privileged to have travelled widely in our country and on the continent, and I have always felt welcome, wherever I have gone.

One of the ways we make people feel unwelcome is by paying them less than others. The same argument about the Western Cape embracing others should apply to the people in corporates who decide on salaries for executives. It is unforgivable in 2017 for blacks and women to be paid less than whites and males.

I have previously got into trouble with readers of this column by pointing out that the economic wealth in South Africa is still concentrated mainly in white hands. In fact, a week or so after I wrote about this in a column, I had a meeting with a white woman who told me she normally likes my column but that I sometimes upset her when I point out economic inequalities. “I agree with you, but we don’t want to be reminded of it all the time,” she said.

But we cannot get away from the fact that black people would not underpay other black people while paying whites more. Nor would women underpay other women while paying men more. The only conclusion is that white men are the ones who are mainly in charge of determining salaries, and they tend to reward people who they think look and sound like them. I know this is a simplistic analysis, but I am merely thinking aloud.

The only way to deal with discrimination is to expose it. If you know of people who are underpaying people based on race or gender, you should raise it with the relevant Chapter Nine Organisation, whether it is the Human Rights Commission or the Gender Commission.

If you live in Cape Town and notice people who are trying to bring back apartheid - an era in which black people were not welcome in our city - then you need to make a noise about it. We cannot afford to ignore racism and discrimination because we don’t want to upset the apple cart or upset our neighbours and so-called friends. If we do that, racism and discrimination will be with us forever.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 9 September 2017)