What lies be­neath…

Maybe it’s time we re-ex­am­ined how trans­for­ma­tion is im­ple­mented in the cor­po­rate world

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY SIZWEKAZI JEKWA sizwekazij@fin­week.co.za

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.

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