Oh no, not the race thing again ...

2014-05-11 15:00

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As we celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa, my company, which specialises in transformation and diversity work, celebrates 20 years of its existence. As I reflect on business transformation since 1994, I wonder, do we indeed have a good story to tell?

When I pioneered the idea of diversity work, the initiative coincided with the dawn of a democratic order, resonating with our new Constitution and the labour legislation that was to follow. In spite of that, it was (and is) a hard sell.

Before starting my business, I had worked as a lecturer and the warden of a mixed-race, mixed-gender residence at Wits and it was evident that South Africans did not understand each other very well.

We lived separate lives, attended different schools, were treated in different hospitals and buried in different graveyards. Inequality was stark and ignorance of “the other” profound on all sides.

In the early years, diversity work was regarded as a moral imperative. The idea of South Africa as a rainbow nation pervaded thought.

But there were problems underneath the carapace of the rainbow nation. I recall working at Vryburg High School in North West, investigating how and why white parents and teachers had physically assaulted black pupils.

I recall the angry words of some parents: “They have taken our country, they won’t take our school.” I recall working in an organisation where pictures of monkeys were displayed with the names of black employees superimposed on them.

When I first suggested in a newspaper that white South Africans should apologise for apartheid, I received death threats.

In 1998, the Employment Equity Act was passed and this gave some impetus to the need for diversity work. Unfortunately, the act was (and is) misunderstood.

It was often regarded as reverse racism by white employees and few companies did enough to create “the enabling environment” required by the act.

Diversity initiatives such as training and mentoring could have played a significant role in this respect. Unfortunately, employment equity compliance became primarily a numbers game and this is where it stopped for many organisations.

The period from 1998 to 2000 was characterised by a dawning acceptance that there was a business case for diversity. Organisations began to realise that if they had employees of different races, genders and ethnicity working together, there was a need for education around difference.

People would not stay where they did not feel valued and understood. Small misunderstandings created a sense of unease. The more progressive companies began to favour diversity processes.

From 2000 to 2010, the word ‘diversity’ seemed to be the flavour of the month. Companies announced “we are doing diversity” or even “we have done diversity”, while all too often this meant a half-day workshop on “cultural differences”.

Numerous companies sprang up offering diversity training. Again, these were usually once-off “microwave” initiatives that might mean wearing traditional attire on Heritage Day or holding a two-hour session on diversity to deal with 300 years of separation. Diversity began to have a poor reputation in organisations.

Workshops or training alone cannot bring about organisational change and what was lacking in many of these initiatives was a sense that diversity had to be embedded in a business strategy; and managed, measured and rewarded.

Many people in South Africa would rather not talk about the past, despite the fact that it greatly affects our lives today

The promulgation of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, gazetted in 2007, created a stir around transformation and diversity.

A handful of previously disadvantaged individuals benefited out of all proportion through a focus on ownership in the act. White people mainly regarded the act as another form of reverse racism and were quick to either point out the lack of any real broad base, or to jump on the bandwagon of fronting.

As we tackle transformation currently, I am often asked whether the “diversity issues” remain the same. It is pointed out to me that the kind of discord and violence that characterised the early 1990s is no longer evident.

Certainly, race was a far more in-your-face issue back then than it is now, but it still remains the underpinning diversity area for all South African organisations.

As Malcolm X said: “Racism is like a Cadillac – it changes its model every year.”

Racism in the workplace these days tends to be far more covert, more discreet and thus more difficult to deal with.

Often in our work, we hear white people express the view that we must “put the past behind us and move on”. There is reluctance to engage in discussion about race. Even the word ‘race’ is often circumvented or replaced with other words like ‘culture’.

In talking to managers about diversity, the hope is often articulated that “this won’t be all about race, will it?” Diversity is not “all about race” but with our history, it is predominantly about race because other forms of difference – gender, age, nationality, language, religion and sexual orientation – are always influenced by racial differences.

The past is usually a place white South Africans do not want to visit, and yet a frank discussion of what it was like to be white during the apartheid years would greatly enhance a national dialogue.

So, the future for diversity work will surely involve bringing together South Africans who recognise they do indeed share a past, who are willing to talk about that past and who want to create a future together.

Oakley-Smith is the founder and managing director of Diversi-T

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