The recent article by Christina Qunta in The Star (April 25 2007) and a follow up article by Itumeleng Mosala published in the same newspaper (May 2 2007) raise again the important indeed critical question of race in South Africa. Ms Qunta suggests that the time is ripe to deal with it through a TRC process so that all of the issues can be publicly confronted and dealt with in an open process. I recall the days when the RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) was high on the political agenda, suggesting that we needed to look at reconstructing our attitudes to race. Certainly there is much merit in her suggestion. The issue of race will not simply go away if we leave it “to fester” as Mr Mosala so aptly puts it.

It is very difficult for white South Africans to understand and articulate sensitivities around race and I dare say many of your black readers (and some white) will feel it presumptuous of me to enter the debate. Ms Qunta however makes a very strong point which I am well aware of, which is that black South Africans are becoming increasingly angry with our failure to deal adequately with race and all of its subtleties and not so subtle nuances .Certainly I am aware of a growing anger and resentment in black friends and colleagues. Partly I believe this stems from our failure as white South Africans to acknowledge that racism is an issue. Because we haven’t experienced prejudice in this way it is perhaps not easy to empathise especially when one harbours guilt for the advantages that race bestowed on us in our recent past.

As a starting point, I think South Africa needs to put race very firmly on the agenda and into the curriculum of all its schools and universities. Understanding, respecting, confronting and negotiating race is a critical life skill for all of South Africa’s children. As long as black children are unable to study their own indigenous languages and where teachers encourage families to “speak English at home” it is unlikely that the cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic disparities of race are allowed to surface. To coin Itumeleng Mosala “we need change not inclusion” .We need integration not assimilation. We need to learn about prejudice, how it is practiced, how it affected us all in the past and how it is playing out in the present. Surely a fundamental life skill for all South Africans should be learning about race and racial prejudice.

Reviewing the workplace, my major area of engagement over the past fourteen years, it seems to me that racism is more of a challenging issue now, than it has been since 1990. Many companies large and small are struggling with what it means and how to deal with it. Black victims of racism feel pain and anger and all too often whites are in denial accusing the victims of “playing the race card”. Part of the problem here stems from the fact that many organisations have never defined racism or developed an effective policy on how to deal with it. So when an incident occurs which is labelled racist, the company has nothing against which to measure it and all too often the situation either spirals into conflict or fades away into confusion and resentment. Furthermore, companies and organisations fail to see that developing an environment which values our differences is a strategic and competitive advantage. People will be attracted to and retained in an environment where they are valued and where they can be themselves. They will not be attracted to, nor remain in environments where they are labelled, degraded and stereotyped. (Note the recent “letter” incident at a leading bank). Until managers (of all colours) have key performance indicators around managing people of different races effectively; until bonuses depend on meeting equity and people related as well as financial targets and depend on dealing effectively with racism, there will be no real change in the world of work.

Racism is profoundly important for productivity because it directly affects the way people feel and therefore act in the workplace. Recently the Trade Union Congress in Britain initiated an anonymous hotline where employees could call to discuss or report racism. They were inundated with calls and the cost to Britain’s productivity as a nation was described as “incalculable”. Surely the situation is even worse in South Africa.

So how is racism played out in the workplace? Institutional racism has been defined as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin which can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amounts to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages mainly ethnic people” (McPherson Enquiry )

In South Africa in 2007 it wears various guises ranging from the overt use of hate speech, name calling (the “k” word is common parlance in many organisations), white employees refusing to use the same amenities such as change areas and restaurants; to the more subtle failure to promote and advance, failure to award responsibility commensurate with job level, having lower expectations of black employees (and therefore having these expectations lived up to).

While Itumeleng Mosala takes black South Africans to task for failing to stand up to racism adequately the effects of so doing can be difficult to live with in the work place. They include being side-lined and marginalised, being labelled a “trouble-maker”, having inadequate or no skills transfer from more senior whites. Effects also include physical and mental illness and dealing with high levels of stress.

It is in the interest of all employers and Trade Unions to understand acknowledge and effectively challenge racism in the workplace. It is certainly not simply about it being the right thing to do, or being politically correct. The Improvement of race relations impacts positively on productivity and profits. It impacts very significantly on people’s sense of self and purpose in the workplace. A workplace where racism is accepted is a lose-lose situation for employee and employer.

So where do companies start? Firstly they should have an effective policy in place which spells out how that company understands and will treat racism; with effective procedures in place for the implementation of such a policy. An organisation may need to audit the organisational culture to understand how and in what areas racism is being practised. Company induction programmes should incorporate training in race relations. The assessment of performance of all employees should have measures to assess competencies in these areas and at more senior levels reward and incentive should be affected by issues of racial equality. Most importantly creating an environment free of prejudice of all kinds should be part of the strategic vision of organisations led and communicated by executive leadership.

If our workplaces take an active stand in addressing racism this will have a spin off effect in the outside world, and may play a part in changing racist attitudes of South Africans at large. Otherwise, as Itumeleng Mosala reminds us “Black South Africans continue to bleed and their wound is festering dangerously”. Without significant efforts to change racial attitudes and behaviours in schools, tertiary institutions and workplaces, and while our national sporting codes are predominantly white in many cases still, it might well be that we need to go the route of a TRC process advocated by Christina Qunta.

Theresa Oakley-Smith
Managing Director of Diversi-T