Steve Biko: A brief analysis of the South African workplace

2015-12-07 15:49

Psychobiographical studies are not very popular in South Africa partly due to critiques in academia who view such studies as  methodologically unsound, especially positivist researchers. One of such scholars (he is not necessarily a positivist) is Professor Xolela Mangcu. In the book 'he' entitled “Biography of Steve Biko", Mangcu dismisses the methodological tone of psychobiography as mere subjective account of a character from the eyes of the one analysing it.

I argue that psychobiographies are even more important today in Africa’s attempt to create its own understanding and distilled African-centred lessons of leadership, behaviour and values instead of relying on the appropriated at times misrepresentations of founding fathers of Africa's critique of colonialism.

Psychobiographical studies as Todd Schultz opines in his 2005 Handbook of Psychobiography aim to “discover why someone did, or how he became what he became or his drive, then one needs to get away from the laboratory into an existential context” (page 5).

Shutlz’s argument finds resonance with Steve Biko life, a life which remains sparsely untold in psychology in terms of how his ideas contributed to the study of psychology, especially for ‘black’ people in South Africa. We still need more scholars to find some psychological principles embedded in Steve Biko’s writings, his life and persona.

With that being said, I wish to extol Steve Biko on his amazing and prophetic analysis of South African society and explain how some of his assertions still find resonance today, especially in the South African workplace.

The South African workplace is reportedly engulfed with setbacks of racism, lack of racial integration including continued prevalence of Eurocentric culture in the South Africans society but most importantly in the workplaces of both private and public organisations.

Many newspapers in South Africa have over the years since 1994 reported on the racism that is raging in the South Africa workplace.

The Pretoria News reported a case of a big insurance company in South Africa (Old Mutual) which was embroiled in a case of a staff member who had racially abused another employees, and the court ruled in favour of the applicant (Pretoria News, 2006).

According to the Daily Dispatch, Black management Forum (BMF) called for an inquiry into workplace racism to be instituted by the government claiming that all the professions in South Africa especially those that continue to be dominated by the “minority” white population harbour more racism (Daily Dispatch, 2005).

Reported racial utterances and actions include employees’ refusal to use the same amenities such as change areas and restaurants with their black co-workers, the use of the “k” word in the workplace, having lower expectation for black employees, failure to promote and advance black employees racism prevails, opines Oakly-Smith. The failure to promote can also be seen in the South African police service’s refusal to promote a white officer on basis that she is ‘white’.

In 2007, the Star newspaper reported on the prevalence of racism with a comment raised by Theresa Oakly-Smith—Oakly-Smith is now heading Diversi-T, an organisation that helps organisations with organisational transformation, diversity management, culture auditing and capacity building. She cried out for the attention of trade unions and employers to acknowledge the existence of racism in the workplace and challenge it (The Star Newspaper, 2007: page 12).

There is a need to find a solution to these issues raised by these concerned citizens.

This notion of racism has not been adequately explored by researchers in the South African workplace and this is a cause for concern since it (racism) has detrimental effects for performance and productivity as Oak-Smith adds again that, “racism directly affects the way people feel and therefore act in the workplace” and productivity will be affected (The Star Newspaper, 2007: 12).

Clearly, with the presentation given above, ‘racial integration’ seems to be a far-fetched.

This is one of the areas that Steve Biko commented on. Steve Biko spoke about the detrimental-psychological impact of racism and how if no adequate attention is given to combating it, it could become the major barrier in fostering racial integration.

Racial integration could be viewed as embedded in the concept and ideology of “rainbow nation”.

The Cape Times newspaper reported in 2008 the Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s campaign of advancing the “Rainbow Nation” notion and calling for all South Africans to celebrate country’s diversity (The Times Newspaper, 2008). Needless to say that, the call fell into deaf eyes as the Management Expert who is CEO at management training firm Astrotech Lisa Van Wyk opines that the rainbow nation concept may actually be an “icing sugar over a burnt cake, we haven’t really dug deep and changed perceptions or set boundaries in how we will allow people to deal with us” (The Star, 2010: page 3).

So the concept of integration as envisaged by the “rainbow Nation” ideology might have come in prematurely in the South African society particularly in the workplace.

According to Biko, this integration was impossible and is impossible even in a non-racial South Africa because, “...the people forming the integration complex have been extracted from various segregated societies with their inbuilt complexes of superiority and inferiority and these continue to manifest themselves” (Biko, 2012:21).

This problem of inferiority and superiority manifests itself in numerous ways in the workplace. For instance, inability to proficiently express oneself in English is viewed as incompetence, dressing in African print is not-professional, and the use of indigenous languages during interviews is inappropriate, performance norms that completely disregard African values and personality etc.

Basically, individual differences in the South African workplace are not celebrated, we refuse to acknowledge each other’s differences. This could be associated arguably with the superiority complexes that one culture turns to ‘enjoy’ over another culture with ‘blacks’ severely affected by the imposter syndrome—which could be associated with internalised inferiority complexes.

Some of the programmes, events and legislation that have been introduced to bring about what Archbishop Tutu referred to as the “Rainbow Nation” including collective celebrations of significant days to the history of the country e.g. freedom day, heritage day etc., policies that are aimed at eliminating any form of discrimination and racial prejudice that may exist (Basic Conditions of Employment, Labour Relations Act etc.).

Fact remains though; racial prejudice and stereotypes do exist regardless of the initiatives because as Stuart Hall argues that there has been institutionalisation of the racial stereotypes that need to be deconstructed (Hall, 1997. article: Race as a floating signifer). It is that institutionalisation that has normalised the dominance of Eurocentric values in the South African workplace.

In October, 2013, while delivering a Steve Biko memorial lecture at the University of Cape Town, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, mentioned the need for a “vibrant African private sector (Zuma, 2013). This in my view could be viewed as an acknowledgment of the Eurocentric nature of the African private sector with public sector included.

In a Human Resources Management text book edited by Swanepoel, the South African situation in terms of business practice is conceptualised as cast in Eurocentric mould and Ruel Khoza (1994) calls it an Anglo-Saxon mould.

South African workplace adheres exactly to what Steve Biko once mentioned during an interview, Biko exclaimed; “....when you come to South African it feels like it is another island of Europe because everything is in a European structure with pockets of disenfranchised black people” (Biko, 1977).

Twenty one (21) years later, the South African workplace is still cast in Eurocentric mould.

This problem requires special attention from Industrial psychologist. As April and Peters argue that, the application of Anglo-American techniques elsewhere proves to be “less effective” due to the fact that “a region’s culture is rooted in their contextual values and belief systems as I have argued elsewhere.

Scholars like Lodge, especially in his 1998 text have suggested that President Thabo Mbeki’s call for an African Renaissance should also include “...a process of recognition of South Africa’s identity as African” (p.105). Steve Biko wrote, “…a country in Africa, in which the majority of the people are African, must inevitably exhibit African values and be truly African in style”. (Biko, 2012:26).

What one finds in South African organisations today as it has been noted by some scholars, is continued exportation of Apartheid and racialized managerial hierarchies by white-led South African companies including Universities? Commentators and researchers have long argued that new styles of relationships with workers even new ways of thinking about workers must be sought. In order to realise a rebirth of Africa, Africa must resemble herself in all its platforms where her people convene for any reason.

Transformation of the South African workplace requires us to study the works, writings and personalities of giants like SEK Mqhayi, Dr Motseoko Pheko, Professor Robert Sobukhwe, Eskia Mpahlele, Barney Pityana (on Black Theology and Black Consciousness), Edward Blyden (on African Personality and Religion), Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Aime Ceaser, Amicar Cabral, Malcom X, Kwame Ture, Julius Nyerere etc. including Steve Biko. Studying their lives, thoughts, and personas could help us achieve serious and real transformation that will improve workplace relations in South Africa, and psychobiographical studies and other qualitative methods are a way to go.

Adopting policies such as; Affirmative Action, BEE, etc. will help us achieve equity (ceteris paribus) of opportunities but they will do so little to transform the individual workplace relations in South Africa.

And the vanguard political movement leading the people must be charged according to Biko with the responsibility to change people’s outlooks and help them acknowledge and celebrate these individual differences—as opposed to preying on the differences for material political gains leading to immaterial gains for the country’s economy.

All these factors mentioned above (racism, integration and cultural values) affect individuals as employees and impact negatively on the country’s productivity and competitiveness in a globalised environment.

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