Affirmative action killing babies? Not quite.

On Friday last week the South African Institute of Race Relations released a statement claiming that " Affirmative action kills babies". As a headline, it's certainly going to get your attention.

The statement goes on to explain that there is a "causal link" between the deaths of three babies in Bloemhof in the North West after they drank contaminated water and the fact that the people who were running the municipality where they lived were the beneficiaries of affirmative action. Quod Erat Demonstrandum, the institute says, affirmative action is killing people, and should be stopped. The institute is wrong. On the facts, on the analysis, and on the impact that stopping affirmative action now would have.

It is probably a measure of how the ANC has fundamentally changed society that opponents to affirmative action who take on the policy in public are now few and far between. While Tony Leon's DA was tempted to "fight back" against it, Helen Zille's does not. It quibbles on the how, but it doesn't argue with the basic tenet that black people were discriminated against, Apartheid is still with us in our lived experiences, and therefore there should be a system to at the very least make a start to equalising our society. Probably the only political party that really takes on affirmative action is the small, ethnically based Freedom Front Plus. (But then its leader doesn't believe black people lived in the interior of the country when his ancestors arrived, so it's not the only thing they're wrong about.)

There are several reasons for this. The first is that it's become more accepted that affirmative action is necessary, even by those who stand to lose out from the policy. The second is that no one who wants to win votes is going to speak out against it, because the majority of the country does stand to benefit from it.

This is where the institute has suddenly come, as if from nowhere, and made this claim.

But the claim simply doesn't add up. It is predicated on several assumptions. While the person who bore ultimate responsibility for this water issue was black, it's not because that person was black that they were crap at their job. To claim so would simply be racist. Rather, the most you could claim was that perhaps they were more likely to get this job in the first place than a white person would have. And without affirmative action, there's no certainty a white person would have been any better. Rather this was the failure of the municipality on several levels.

The institute also assumes that there would have been qualified white people who would have been available for the job. Considering most whites live in urban areas, that's a big assumption.

One of the biggest impacts of affirmative action that is often overlooked is the impact it's had on integrating our society. You can't legislate that black and white people must go to the same churches or follow the same sporting codes. You can use the economy, through employment equity legislation, to encourage, or some would say force, integration. It is really at the workplace that black and white people mix, rub up against each other, and start the process of integration.

To stop that now could push some people back into their laagers.

But it would also be wrong because it would simply continue the inequity imposed upon us in the years before 1994. The strongest argument in favour of affirmative action is this:

If two people run a race, and one starts behind the other, and ends at the same point as the other, then clearly that person is the faster runner.

In other words, if one person comes out of St John's in Houghton and the other from Dobsonville Secondary, and both apply for the same job with the same qualifications, it is not the St John's boy who should get the job. It is logic that I find completely compelling. Affirmative action in the way it is meant to be practised was never about simply putting black people into jobs. It was about when situations occur where a white person and a black person are competing for the same job, with the same qualifications, that the black person should get it.

The institute exists as a think-tank and research institution. One of the reasons this press release is such a bad idea, is that any other concepts and proposals it comes up with are going to be delegitimised by this one document. This is a huge pity, because it's hard to find an organisation better at analysing data than this one. It's a body that actually has the capacity to properly look at numbers, and come up with solutions to some of our problems. Now it's going to find it that much harder to make any headway in the public sphere. Anyone who disagrees with it is simply going to wave this back in its face.

Unfortunately, this is not the only time this institute appears to want to take us backwards. Last week, its former CEO John Kane-Berman wrote a column in _ Business Day_ in which he suggested our commentariat was "sleeping through the revolution". His main point, it seemed, was that the National Democratic Revolution was being implemented by the ANC, and the SACP, and no one was saying anything.

Well, firstly, whenever legislation goes through Parliament, there's a hell of a hue and cry if it's controversial. Look at the fuss over the new mining legislation, and the amendments to the Labour Relations Act last year. People are noticing, and are opposing it when and where they can.

Secondly, it seemed to be a piece really bemoaning the fact that other members of the commentariat just didn't agree with him. And so what? Maybe other people just don't see it like he does, and now he feels the need to complain about that. Complaining about commentators is not a very productive game.

He also claimed that the ANC was "driven by ideology". Really? It may claim that it is, but the fact is that more and more, its policies are leaning to the right. There's no more talk of changing inflation targeting, or radical shifts in economic policy. For all of President Jacob Zuma's talk of "radical economic change" during his inauguration speech, quite frankly, we've heard it all before going back to Mbeki's time. It just hasn't happened.

Instead, what we're seeing is an ANC and alliance where the left is in retreat. The SACP doesn't oppose policies like the privatisation of our roads through e-tolls, or even really participate in policy discussions anymore. And Cosatu can't even hold a Central Executive Committee meeting at the moment, so it's completely written off as an ideological force. The establishment of a Ministry of Small Business Development was a victory for the business lobby group inside the ANC. That demonstrates that this group now exists, and is influencing discussions.

Instead, one can't help wondering if people like the institute, and Kane-Berman, are not fighting old wars in old ways. Like the group of people who argue in the letters section of some papers about whether Nelson Mandela or Arthur Chaskalson were members of the SACP, they seem to be looking at the present through only the prism of the past.

Of course the past explains the present, but that doesn't mean we have to focus on it in the way they seem to be doing.

Affirmative action is a force for good in our society. It must stay. And it doesn't kill babies.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.