Facebook users set the fake news flags waving when a 2015 news item resurfaced recently. The article from “conservative-headlines.com” was titled “South African firm ordered to lay off 3,389 white employees”.
“A South African utility company has been given an ultimatum to reduce its number of white employees by 44.3% over the next 5 years,” the article said. “This means 3,389 whites have to go. It is part of the Federal ‘Black Empowerment’ program.”
The headline misses the mark on its main points, but behind it lies real events.
SA operates under Employment Equity Act
Our partner PolitiFact Global News Service examined the origins of this claim as part of the inaugural International Fact-Checking Day on 2 April 2017. Organisers at Poynter.org describe the day as “not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts – and fact-checking – in politics, journalism, and everyday life”.
The conservative-headlines.com website, which features images of the US confederate flag and an op-ed in favour of a white “ethnostate” in South Africa, took its story from a prominent Afrikaans language news site Netwerk24.
Netwerk24 was reporting on the affirmative action plans of Eskom, South Africa’s public electricity utility. South Africa operates under the Employment Equity Act, which says “employers must make sure designated groups (black people, women and people with disabilities) have equal opportunities in the workplace”.
Netwerk 24 reported the 3,389 figure based, it said, on documents Eskom had submitted to three unions. One of the unions, Solidarity, describes itself has having “a close relationship with the Afrikaner community”. Solidarity opposes “reverse racism” and regularly tangles with the government over affirmative action.
‘Number was derived from Eskom plan’
The factual part of the claim is this: In November 2014, the South African department of labour sent Eskom a report telling it to set numerical targets so that the makeup of its workforce would more closely match that of the country at large. The company had to submit a plan to reach those targets by 2020.
The report itself doesn’t give a number. But if Eskom didn’t come up with a plan and implement it, then the labour department could bring a case against it in the government’s labour court and seek to impose a fine.
We asked the Solidarity union where it got the figure of 3,389 whites and spokesman Francois Redelinghuys told us “this number was derived from the employment equity plan Eskom submitted whereby it was envisioned that by 2020 they aim to reduce the number of white workers as part of their affirmative action strategy”.
Redelinghuys didn’t tell us how the number was derived.
Eskom spokesman Khulu Phasiwe told us, meanwhile, that “there is no such plan” to layoff white workers.
Draft plan would retrench more black workers
In Eskom’s 2016 annual report, the company lays out the workforce makeup it hopes to achieve by 2021. For example, the fraction of black employees in senior management is slated to rise from about 61% to 89%.
It would seem likely that black workers would gain at the expense of white ones, but there is no way to translate those changes into absolute numbers. Adding to the complicated picture, the company plans to downsize across the board by about 20%.
How this all would shake out racially is unclear. In May 2015, Solidarity said in a press release that in the coming year, Eskom planned to cut 1,689 black workers from its rolls, and 1,080 white ones. In other words, black people would be the bigger losers.
The company distanced itself from those figures, saying they had been part of a draft plan that was never adopted. But in any event, the numbers don’t bolster the broader claim that whites will suffer more than blacks.
‘Can’t justify dismissal on basis of affirmative action’
If the numbers in the headline are dicey, so is the idea that the government had “ordered” Eskom to lay off white workers.
Solidarity spokesman Redelinghuys told us that “we only said that said [the number of] white worker jobs would be reduced. The media made the article about laying off workers.”
Professor of labour law Christoph Garbers at Stellenbosch University told us that “the [government’s] report/recommendation clearly does not say what the article says”.
Garbers said the labour department told Eskom to take demographics into account, but “that is a far cry from interpreting this to mean that Eskom now has to dismiss people”.
Garbers also said that by law and precedent “you can’t justify dismissal on the basis of affirmative action”. Eskom’s spokesman told us that to date, not a single worker has been retrenched.
Conclusion: The headline is incorrect
A Facebook post said that the South African government ordered a company to lay off over 3,000 white workers. The source of the figure remains unclear.
While the government did tell the state utility company Eskom to increase the fraction of black workers in various job categories, it did not specify a number. And while the government could take Eskom to court if it failed to adopt a higher goal, it did not order the firm to fire anyone. On that point, even the union most closely identified with white workers agreed.
Furthermore, even if that many whites did lose their jobs, the figure alone says nothing about whether more blacks might lose theirs. Eskom plans to downsize and in one plan leaked from the company, that’s exactly what could have taken place.
Lastly, South African law bars a company from laying off a worker in order to meet affirmative action goals, an expert told us.
Researched by Jon Greenberg of Politifact. This article appeared on Africa Check, a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Twitter @AfricaCheck and www.africacheck.org