Opinionista Lwando Xaso 6 March 2019

Determining the cost of exclusion

Private companies operating in post-conflict societies such as South Africa have societal responsibilities over and above making a profit — such as creating within their spaces the dignified, egalitarian and just society envisioned by the Constitution.

We live in a post-conflict society founded on and defined by racial and gender oppression. In my adult life, I have resolved to resist any form of domination and subjugation because of witnessing how unkind the world is, especially to black women. I have become assertive and protective of my identity out of fear of being overrun. The quote that plays in my mind over and over is “primally, I need an identity — as much of it as I can amass: For my need for identity is mutually articulated with my terror of annihilation”.

In my younger years, I was not so consumed by race. My parents desired to create a better life for me unburdened by history, but despite their efforts, the seeds of my obsession with identity were planted at 13 years old. I was in Grade 7 and it was valediction night. At the time we lived in Diepkloof, Soweto so I couldn’t go home before valediction because my suburban school was, by apartheid’s deliberate design, too far from home, so I went to my white classmate’s home, which was designed to be close by.

My classmate’s mother had prepared an amazing pre-valediction dinner. Valediction means goodbye, or to part ways, and because of what happened at dinner that night my white friend and I would not just be parting ways because we were going to different high schools but because of my experience at her family’s dinner table.

My friend’s mom had prepared my favourite — pasta. Everyone at the table picked up their forks and knives and I was about to pick up mine too when my friend’s mom politely told me “it’s okay Lwando, you can eat with your hands”. She was smiling politely and reassuringly indicating that this was a space where I could be black — what black meant to her was me eating pasta with my hands. Did she assume I did not know how to use a knife and fork? In her efforts to be culturally sensitive and inclusive, she left me feeling excluded and othered, two things a 13-year-old child does not want to be. It dawned on me that she knew nothing about me. Even though I had been over at their home a number of times, they had never been to mine. She did not know anything about my family and how we lived.

Her attempt at inclusion was bound to fail because it was predicated on assumptions about black people without any effort and maybe even the interest in doing the work of learning in the same way black people have had to observe, learn and participate in white culture. Looking back, maybe I was a token of their progressiveness at the height of Mandela’s plea for reconciliation. The pasta incident made me realise how vacuous and one-sided our relationship was and even at that tender age of 13, I knew our relationship had reached its limit. Unless they were willing to venture out of their comfort zone there was nowhere else left for us to go.

Attending a dominantly white school will show you how different you are from your classmates but I thought I had blended in until a white friend’s mom pointed me out. I knew despite my best efforts at assimilation I would always be chased by misconceived stereotypes. Because of that incident, my awareness of my otherness started to preoccupy my imagination but today it not only preoccupies me — it is the lens through which I see and experience life itself. I have witnessed and experienced exclusion not only at school but in the professional space. I have witnessed exclusionary corporate cultures and policies end the careers of many women — especially black women. I have witnessed companies take no genuine interest in understanding the people they employ, their cultures and histories — in effect taking no interest in the country within which they operate.

That dinner table experience at my white friend’s house has inspired “Including Society” which is an organisation dedicated to re-imagining a private sector culture that is inclusive and that reflects the values and transformative mission of the South African Constitution. Private companies operating in post-conflict societies such as South Africa have societal responsibilities over and above making a profit — such as creating within their spaces the dignified, egalitarian and just society envisioned by the Constitution.

Including Society is dedicated to finding answers to the question: How do we build a private sector that is inclusive and in which all people have a genuine opportunity to contribute to its culture, where all identities can be reflected and accepted and where all people have the opportunity to pursue meaningful and fulfilling careers?

There is an opportunity to re-imagine what transformation of the private sector looks like as a vehicle through which the society envisioned in the Constitution can be realised. Including Society is designed to bring awareness to the transformation crisis in the private sector, provide a platform upon which the disenfranchised in the private sector can channel their concerns, ideas, support, research and expertise in order to realise true change.

We have started the conversation around the lunch table. Many lunch tables across corporate South Africa remain segregated — our lunch table brings together people from different positions, gender, race, cultures and professions to have conversations under the theme “struggles for inclusion in corporate South Africa”.

We have a curated a three-course menu of interesting food which reflects South Africa and the world’s different cultures and traditions. The menu is curated to show how the creative fusion of different cultures can be a pleasant and eye-opening experience. The thought-out menu is a metaphor for the kind of professional spaces we all deserve — inclusive, creative, elevating and transformative. Together with the food, we have curated questions for each course regarding inclusion and exclusion in the corporate world.

The stories prompted by the food and questions will be used as a base for a documentary to bring awareness to the public about the transformation crisis in the private sector and why it should matter to everyone. We want to trace the roots and history of exclusion in corporate South Africa from colonial and apartheid laws and practices. Even though these overtly racist laws have been repealed, the racists and exclusionary cultures remain. In order to understand today’s problems, we have to start by examining our history, which is what the documentary will do.

We also want to capture today’s narratives of not only those professionals who have experienced exclusion but also those who have experienced inclusion and who can share those conditions that have been conducive to their success. The documentary will share views from across the spectrum from employees, economists, leaders and managers, politicians, historians and professors who have studied transformation, students and medical professionals who will speak on the effects of exclusion on well-being and health and also the benefits of a healthy work environment.

Including Society was inspired by the transformation of Constitution Hill, a space that once symbolised the depths of our oppression but which is today the pinnacle of justice as the home of the Constitutional Court. This court was one of the first institutions to be built in post-apartheid South Africa and Including Society offers lessons of transformation and inclusion using Constitution Hill and the Constitutional Court as a case study. Our main message is that in an including society anyone can be anything they want to be. A black woman can go from being a nurse to one of the first two women on the Constitutional Court bench — Yvonne Mokgoro. A white, HIV positive gay man can also serve on the country’s highest court — Edwin Cameron. A blind Indian man can make his way to the bench of the Constitutional Court — Zak Yacoob. DM

To support our cause by sharing your stories of inclusion, exclusion, ideas on meaningful transformation or to make monetary donations towards the quest of making a world-class documentary, please follow Including Society on Twitter at Including_Inc, on Instagram at Including_Society and on Facebook at Including Society.

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