What lies beneath…
Maybe it’s time we re-examined how transformation is implemented in the corporate world
I’VE BEEN FOLLOWING with deep fascination the Investec saga and its allegations of employee discrimination. Like me, maybe some of you are wondering why this letter from a 22-year-old intern is attracting so much attention that even President Thabo Mbeki felt the need to comment on it in his weekly newsletter.
After all, the intern isn’t the first person to accuse his employer of discrimination and he certainly won’t be the last. However, there are striking aspects of this allegation that make it unique: it happened at Investec, one of the crown jewels of South Africa’s financial services sector, a place of educated, competent professionals.
Investec is also a bank that’s considered highly innovative and progressive: it was one of the first companies to sign an empowerment deal and is an early adopter of employment equity policies.
If this incident had happened in some ignorant mining town or a farm in the middle of the Karoo people might have been less surprised. But it didn’t. The idea that the racial attitudes described by former Investec intern Bonga Bangani still exist in the slick modern corporate offices of Sandown’s financial district is unthinkable.
So when Bangani wrote openly about his experiences to management, the standard knee jerk reaction from some white readers on the FIN24 website was to either condemn the young man as “a cry baby playing the race card” or yet another incompetent black guy who got a break he didn’t deserve. The story also solicited similar knee-jerk responses from black readers, who immediately hailed Bangani as a national hero and a poor, defenceless victim of the worst injustice.
As the comments came pouring in from all sides, my colleagues and I were surprised by the interest the story generated. What was even more fascinating to us was the fact that the register revealed that the majority of the commentators on the site hadn’t even read Bangani’s letter posted alongside the report.
This saga confirmed what I’ve suspected for some time with regard to transformation in SA: there’s a growing trend of tension and animosity between black and white people over the process and neither black nor white employees are happy.
Both sides are feeling wronged and hard done by. The white professionals feel threatened and unappreciated; the black professionals feel scrutinised, used and sidelined.
Perhaps it’s time we reviewed how transformation is being implemented in corporate SA. Perhaps companies could do more to ensure that they encourage a spirit of reconciliation, diversity and understanding and not engender hate and discourse between racial groups. formation for many has become a meaningless and arbitrary headcount, where companies aim to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of that law. That soulless rationalisation in turn is cultivating racial animosity between black and white employees in the workplace.
Let’s not forget that Bangani’s letter had a strong message of reconciliation – which Mbeki rightly noted was being ignored. It wasn’t just a description of the injustices he believed he had suffered at Investec but also an expression of a genuine desire to effect positive change within the company. Instead, many black and white readers jumped on the accusation bandwagon, slinging insults with-
For many, transformation has become a meaningless
and arbitrary headcount, where companies aim to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of that law.
For example, telling white employees that they should be grateful they even have jobs if they raise any grievances isn’t likely to encourage goodwill between blacks and whites. But I’ve heard people make that kind of statement.
Often the “we’re looking for an empowerment candidate for this position” is a nice and easy way of telling someone who isn’t suitable for the job to go away without taking the flak for disappointing them, especially if they still work for you. I believe companies often use that excuse to turn people away instead of telling them the truth.
By the same token, hiring black graduates to meet your quota and then proceeding to shove them into a corner isn’t real empowerment. Neither is employing a “token black executive” as window dressing when you don’t have any real work for him (or her) to do. Those actions are equally insulting and frustrating to black professionals as they are to white ones.
I firmly believe that some employers seem unnecessarily heartless in the manner in which they execute transformation policies. Trans- out even reading the letter and establishing the facts.
You could say the episode is quite telling: it reveals that the same deep-seated prejudices that both white and black South Africans still carry 13 years into democracy are bubbling beneath the surface waiting for moments like these to erupt.
We can’t pretend that all’s well and that racial prejudices no longer exist. We also have to face up to the fact that some people are still struggling to come to terms with certain aspects of transformation. There are still many white employees who feel threatened by the process and who are quietly engaged in various activities aimed at sabotaging it.
There also still many black professionals who feel alienated and stifled in their corporate environments and who feel unable to voice their concerns for fear of being accused of “whingeing” or “playing the race card”.
Nevertheless, refusing to talk about racism in the workplace and pretending that everyone is free of prejudice will definitely not help things… no matter how much we want it to be true.