Cape business world ‘marked by racism, hostility’

2009-10-24 16:21

THE Cape business community will do some navel-gazing following the release of a report this week concluding that the business world in the province is marked by “racism” and “hostility” across all sectors.

The employment equity research, commissioned by the Employment Promotion Programme and conducted by Prof Martin Hall and Dr Sabie Surtee, is being examined by the Cape Town Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The research, which looked at businesses with head offices in the Western Cape, reveals that black people are “almost always less successful than white people in moving up career paths, creating an ‘ebony ceiling’ effect in all the participating companies across all sectors”.

Says the report: “Contrary to frequent media claims that whites are the losers in the South African post-apartheid settlement, white people continue to be appointed and promoted in the participating companies across sectors and in most occupational levels at rates that are in excess, and often significantly in excess, of their contribution to the South African workforce as a whole.”

This is old news to black people trying to succeed in the region, says Business Unity South Africa (Busa) chief executive Jerry Vilakazi.

Busa is studying the 135-page document closely to uncover the underlying reasons behind the lack of transformation in the Cape.

The report itself notes that “it is not clear” what the underlying causes are or what potential solutions might be to address the imbalances.

Vilakazi says if the problem is with business itself the matter can ­easily be addressed, but if it is more of a societal issue – perhaps related to different dynamics between the unique racial mix of the Cape and broader cultural issues – addressing the problem will be more difficult.

But he believes that because many blacks do not necessarily leave the company they work for but rather ­request to be relocated to other provinces indicates that the problem may be more of a societal issue.

Sello Leshope, strategic director at advertising agency Ogilvy Cape Town, believes societal factors are largely to blame and that black people are insecure because they are not in the majority.

Leshope, who had no problem reaching the higher corporate echelons, believes blacks who come to the Western Cape are not used to the fact that there are relatively fewer blacks in the province, making it easier to blame bad experiences on racism.

“Being in the minority makes it tougher for black professionals with no social networks to rely on. Cape Town is cliquey and even worse in business. The town is an anomaly, it’s a really hard concept to grasp. It leads to a lot of insecurity about being in the minority.

“I’m not saying there isn’t racism but people can’t get used to the dynamics of the Western Cape within corporate structures,” says Leshope.

“If you’re the only person sitting in a restaurant, how are you going to be able to tell if the service is bad or if it’s racism?”

Mkhuseli Mancotywa, accounts director of Glass House, a web development company, says he is “unfortunately not surprised” by the findings of the report.

He says the lack of equity becomes clearer whenever he meets clients from other parts of the country. “Joburg clients are the most vocal about it. They come here and say ‘My God, where are all the black people in this town? This is weird.’ I’m a bit indifferent to it, but for them it’s a big thing.”

This echoes findings in the report that the “particularly acute” racial hierarchies in the Western Cape lead to cynicism and pessimism and black people “invariably see work and social conditions in Gauteng as more ­favourable”.

Cape Town is made up of a collection of tight-knit communities that tend to stick together. “We’re still in our little nodes here. Joburg is different in that socialisation and business are all mixed up. Under the big banner of money people have been able to release the shackles holding them back from interacting with each other,” says Mancotywa.

He adds that working for a major Cape Town advertising firm is tainted by insidious but persistent instances of racial discrimination.

Mancotywa says: “If you come in as someone who wants to go far, to go up in life with an aggressive drive, I think that can be a big threat for the white male who wants to hold onto a way of doing things that is slowly slipping away.”

He says there is an understanding among black employees that they are not part of what they refer to as the White Boys Club, and will not advance in their specific company unless they are prepared to adjust to the style of that club.

“There are some black people that have made their way, but they had to toe the line very heavily. That’s not my vibe,” he says.

Mancotywa adds that his white peers seem to rise through the ranks far more easily. “The path to getting further ahead seems smoother and less frustrating. They are not more educated, they do not speak better, but people just feel they can trust those in the White Boys Club more. After a while you start wondering, ‘what have I done wrong? Why am I never invited to sit in the boardroom’?” – West Cape News

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