CORPORATE STRESS AND THE CHALLENGE OF DIVERSITY AND CHANGE IN SOUTH AFRICA

“There are 2 things in life that are inevitable:”, goes the old joke much beloved of Piet Koornhof (he of the big ears and strange guffaw, as portrayed by Pieter-Dirk Uys), “death and income tax. And it is a pity they don’t come in that order!” But, as in his much-vaunted disavowal of apartheid many years later, he was wrong. What he ignored was the third and major inevitability: that of CHANGE itself.

The rapid changes occurring at present are having a huge impact on corporate South Africa. It is in fact estimated that 90% of the companies in the top 100 will no longer be there in 5-10 years time. Mergers, acquisitions, down-sizing, rapid growth, insolvencies, all will change the companies we know. On top of that, developments in technology and computerisation, as well as workplace profile (more women and blacks are entering the workplace at levels not seen in apartheid South Africa), all create a totally different situation. What I want to focus on in this article is the effect of the changing workplace profile, of increasing diversity at all levels. If not worked with well and creatively within business and government , a lot of individual and group tension can and will ensue. In fact, as debated recently in parliament, the Rainbow Nation concept itself is under threat if present attitudes prevail.

From my work within corporates and government, it is very clear to me that 2 paradigms, 2 views of reality exist in South Africa. At present they are irreconcilable, and are tearing us apart. The first view is that of many whites, and of many in management. It goes something like this: “We are now in the New South Africa. We have to pull together on the same team. Workers must realise that , with the new global economy and the arrival of GATT in several years time, we have no choice but to be internationally competitive. If we are not, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. This means we cannot afford high labour costs and serious affirmative action policies. There is no time to be lost. Let us move into the future together.”

The opposite viewpoint, mostly of black South Africans and workers, goes something like this: “We waged a long struggle for democracy and justice in this country, and we won.. Now we need to see the fruits thereof. That includes participating in decision-making within companies, and also increased wages that we can now live well on. This is our heritage. We are no longer prepared to be dictated to by management. We want ourselves as individuals and cultural beings to be taken seriously. The past needs to be redressed as a matter of urgency.”

As you can see, one paradigm focuses on the future, the other on the past. One focuses on forgetting, the other on remembering. These are not just abstract concepts, however. In companies and government departments where I work, I see much polarisation taking place. With the Labour Relations Act, the Employment Equity Act, etc. about to make an impact, this can only get worse. Take the case of Gavin, a white Afrikaans technician in a large para-statal, for example. He has applied for promotion posts twice recently, and has not even been accepted for an interview. His perception is that this is as a result of his being white. He is furious, as he claims he had nothing to do with apartheid, and feels he is being discriminated against. Take also the case of Thabo, a new middle manager within a factory environment. He has moved jobs several times in the past year. Not because- as he complains many whites believe- he is trying to increase his pay packet, but because he just does not fit into a corporate culture that he feels does not respect his cultural background. He thinks he is discriminated against by his white superiors, but cannot clearly prove racism. Neither of these 2 have a sense of belonging to their companies; both would leave if they could. As they know they must give the appearance of fitting in, they both undermine the companies in other ways, -some conscious some unconscious, such as being sick, taking long lunches, being late or working more slowly than they need. Motivation and job satisfaction are low, stress, anxiety and interpersonal tensions are high. In neither case are we talking a happy, productive work environment. In fact, we know that South Africa ranks 45 out of 48 for productivity on the World Productivity Institute indices. In addition, our management capabilities rate only 42nd.

Ok, so how do we move from a situation such as this, one which threatens the very existence of the Rainbow Nation? How do we do the proverbial finding of each other? For the irony is that both paradigms are right –we MUST become competitive to avoid massive retrenchments, but we also must deal with the past in order to move into the future. The problem is that we are each carrying our own bags into our interactions with each other. Within those bags are all we have been taught about different races, all the attitudes that exist out there, all our personal, group and community experiences of different races, genders, ranks, etc. And, unfortunately, they are based on false conceptions, on stereotypes about each other that come out of lack of understanding, lack of real personal contact that apartheid so successfully maintained. So, for example, when I meet you, a Black shop steward, our interaction is determined by what I am carrying in my bag, as opposed to being able to meet you anew as a human being in your own right, and vice versa.

There are 3 approaches to this. The first, adopted by management in many companies so far, is to avoid doing anything. If any training happens, it is technical. New systems are put in, retrenchments undertaken. Unfortunately, they are ignoring the human element, and are in for a shock when, for example, a newly instituted workplace forum demands to see what top managers earn, or requires a rationale for the lack of attention to life skills and Adult Basic Education training. Clearly, with this approach, relationships stand to become more adversarial. The second approach –one adopted by many government departments – is what I call the Politically Correct one. Employees are taught how to be PC, how to say the right thing in order to not endanger their survival within the company or department. I can think of several corporates that have, for example, gone away for “Affirmative Action Workshops”, and returned with even worse relationships between the genders, races and management/ worker divide than before, with subversion now only much more subtle. Again, there are no shared values. Change has been on a cognitive level, whereas attitudes have even hardened. Except now, of course, these may not be expressed publicly. Cliques and pockets of resistance are formed.

The third approach, which I refer to as “The challenge of diversity”, is the one I have continually seen to be the only really successful one. It is the only point that brings the 2 paradigms together into a mutual understanding. It is one that appreciates the need for a strategic approach to diversity, as well as an experiential one. It is based on the work of M. Scott Peck, in his writings on building community. For Peck, there are 4 phases of this:
• Pseudo-Community
• Chaos
• Emptying
• Real community

Many companies are either in Phase 1 or 2. In Pseudo-Community, we smile at each other, seem to get on superficially, but underneath we have issues unresolved. Thabo thinks David is a racist. Sheila thinks John will not promote her because she is a woman. David cannot stand being told he is a racist, and having his authority questioned. When things get too hot, or we are under too much work pressure, we move into Chaos. Everything bubbles to the surface. When problems arise, an external consultant is brought in to run a team-building programme, and for a while things seem to be alright again. We are back into Pseudo-community.

However, in order to move into real community, we have to go beyond chaos into Emptying. In this phase we get to know each other as human beings. We get to understand our fears, our hopes, our differences and commonalities. There is a very moving story I like to recite about (let’s call him) Petrus, who was the guy who let people in a military medical base in at the gate. Before the diversity course he did with me as part of the Psychological Integration Programme (PIP) that many soldiers from different backgrounds went through as part of the military integration process, he was mostly ignored by those he let through. Then he told his story:

50 years ago, his father, who was a black albino, was being kicked to death by some farmers in the area. He, then a little boy of 10, ran to the police for help, but was told “Voertsek, kaffir!” He ran back, to find his father dying, and held him in his arms for his last breaths. His elder and only brother ran away, and he has never seen him since. This was the first time in 50 years he had told his story. Those who heard it could not fail to be inutterably moved. Having spoken it, his resentment towards whites, carried all this time, was healed. So, he was able to empty his bag, and move on. All those who did so, could move into a shared future. “Us and Them” became “We.” A community was born. And there were many other stories to tell, from black and white, man and woman, management and worker. Once all the baggage, all the attitudes, perceptions, stereotypes about each other were laid bare, there was no more ammunition to hold back. From there, a real team could be built, based upon commonalities, and respect for differences and diversity. Team-building I would then do, especially using the outdoors, would help to show how efficiently, effectively and caringly they could work together. Previous foes became mutual participants in departments and companies based on shared values and a strong desire for success, of the company as well as the individuals it encompasses. The corporate culture widened to incorporate everybody’s’ cultures. A sense of belonging was born. Productivity went up.

This story has been played out many times, in companies and government departments where I have worked. Much work has to be done, but what has been shown is that it is possible to bridge the gap between 2 seemingly totally disparate paradigms. What it takes are talking and dialogue, experiential workshops and follow-ups in the workplace that ensure participation by all, processually-developed explicit shared values, a system of rewards for improved group and team productivity, and the willingness to open the corporate culture to all. And, of course, the courage to recognise the divisions based on differences that may exist, even subtly, and the desire to do something about it, to move from adversarial relations to a real rainbow community we talk about but rarely live.

Let me end with a beautiful story, told again in one of my barrier-breaking workshops by an ex-MK soldier, then a factory shop steward. He held up a lit match to the group, and said: “This match represents the fire that burned within me, for freedom and justice for my people. But those flames also burned me, consumed me with anger and bitterness towards the government and whites in general, and then towards all the managers I met. But, that time is over. I want to build this new South Africa together. Recognise that I am a human like you, and we can go forward together, build a company for all of us.” I then knew that the rainbow nation was not just an illusion but, given commitment to this type of joint adventure, could become a reality.

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