Much of the world is working to counteract racial and gender discrimination, but even if we manage to erase them in the public domain, prejudice and discrimination live on in people’s private spaces. Covertly, when we are with our own kind, we take the liberty to talk, often in disparaging ways, of those who do not inhabit our tribe or gender or ethnic group. Not to be admitted – but often the truth.
Race and gender discrimination know no social boundaries. They flourish from the poor working-class communities in Southern Europe who fight for the expulsion of North African refugees arriving by boats, to the highest social classes and leaders in business and government everywhere.
In a recently published report in the USA, Anne Simpson, corporate governance director of the biggest US public pension fund, the California Employees Retirement System, bemoans the fact that major US listed boards still contain too many white men. Reference is also made to the description by Sir Derek Higgs in the UK as boards having mainly “pale, male and stale” members.
In South Africa, on boards of directors and in the top executive ranks, companies are working hard to redress this, but it often seems to be done because it is required and not out of a real sense of desire for the preferred candidates. We have developed a kind of public egalitarianism and a private world of prejudice.
Why is it that with so many good intentions and solemn undertakings, discrimination still lives on? How is it possible with all the governance reports and constitutional commitments which specifically outlaw race and gender-based decision-making, we have not been able to adapt to a different value system and to re-programme ourselves? Is discrimination of this kind in-bred or is it in-born? Is it handed down in families and social systems or is it intrinsic to man’s so-called human nature?
If it is in-bred there may be some hope, perhaps in a distant future of “out breeding” it; training one generation after another to respect a different code, and to live a “race-blind” life. If it is in-born, no matter how much posturing we do, it will always be with us.
We acknowledge the world-wide phenomenon where people define themselves by mocking or belittling those who are different. Or who live across the border or who have a different faith. It has been like that for centuries and it will most likely be like that in the future no matter how we legislate or try to curb ourselves. In its most benign form, clannishness simply makes us more comfortable with our own kind. But our nastier side emerges when we feel threatened or we imagine that the other side is taking some kind of advantage. In its basic form the fight for survival is a fight for territory. Man has always needed land to survive. So we become possessive of it and defend to the death the resource that feeds us.
Or it may be an intuitive attempt at long-term survival of our species and preserving a purity of our own kind. Why else would Greeks or Jews or WASPS or whoever be so happy and satisfied when their children marry within their own community, and so unhappy when they don’t? Marrying out of the faith has for centuries been sufficient cause for expulsion from the tribe.
People will fight and risk all to cherish their own culture and heaven help those who try to influence it or in any way try to impose something different. Ethnic pride can make for generations of terrorist warfare. Look at the Basque country of Spain and even in placid liberal-minded Belgium, where the northern Flemish will become violent against the southern Walloons. Faith is the ultimate source of murderous discrimination. Why else would the Shiites and the Sunnis be prepared to die for what to an outsider seems like a mere technicality of difference in their beliefs? It’s the same in Ireland with the Catholics and Protestants; all Christians murdering each other for their slightly different beliefs over the centuries.
The Scots and the Irish have always hated the English, and the English continue to make disparaging, often nasty jokes about all of them. The Greeks hate the Turks and the Palestinians want to eliminate the Jews. There is a real fear that the Indians want to wage nuclear war against their neighbours, in fact their kith and kin, the Pakistanis. Even within ethnic groups there are cast-iron positions against the other tribe or group of outsiders. What’s it with the Zulus and the Xhosas?
But nations or factions within nations fighting each other is not as serious in these times as broad and general race based prejudice. If the USA as the home-ground of high-minded egalitarianism and democracy can’t get it right, what hope is there for the rest of us? Racial discrimination is alive and well in the good old USA, and according to much evidence, so is gender prejudice, which resides just below the surface despite great advances in recent times. Gender-based violence and criminality continue to dog the world from India and Afghanistan to leafy suburbs in countries like Austria and the rest of the first world.
So why would we be surprised that black and white racial prejudice still flourishes? Why all the outrage which only serves to drive it under ground and to entrench the reality of our differences?
Could there ever be a time when this very serious subject can be addressed in a lighter vein, maybe even using humour to help us deal with it the way Trevor Noah or Evita Bezuidenhout do it? Is there ever going to be a time when we become less tetchy in the public discourse of stressed and tense South Africa when Cyril Ramaphosa warns us that we should not have a return to the time of the “Boers”, when privately we tell “Van der Merwe” jokes? DM
Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.