Defend Truth


May the workforce be with you: Bring on the Jedi to beat the B-BBEE backlash and right the wrongs of the past


Professor Kurt April is the Allan Gray Chair and Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

South African organisations may need to move beyond mere compliance with broad-based black economic empowerment legislation and expand their practices to effectively address the lack of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion — also known as Jedi — in the workplace.

The chasm that separates the haves from the have-nots is clearly illustrated by Stats SA’s Multidimensional Inequality Trends Report, which states that unemployment remains highest among black (31%) and coloured South Africans (23%), while being significantly lower among Indians (11%) and white people (6%).

In terms of spending power and disposable income, white South Africans are still the biggest earners and spenders of any racial group, with Indians spending half as much, coloured people spending close to a quarter of whites, and blacks one-tenth of what white South Africans spend. Shockingly, only 11% of South Africans have access to the internet at home, 28% own a private vehicle, and just 17% have access to medical aid.

Affirmative Action and broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) remain highly relevant in addressing these historical imbalances. The idea behind these policies is that humans will not willingly give up their “hard-worked-for” privilege, and therefore will only respond to an external mandate for equity, equitable access to resources and opportunities, and the collective unlearning of prejudices. And yet, in recent times, there has been increasing resistance towards B-BBEE from both employers and their employees.

The South African workplace remains a very complex space and organisations wishing to move through the B-BBEE backlash to bring about deep change in workplace cultures and organisational orientations may need to consider a different way forward. In particular, they can look to incorporate two philosophical approaches. The psychological approach, where individuals engage in profoundly personal work, often complemented through coaching, in which they begin to accept their own internal diversity so they can accept the external diversity they see outside of themselves. Then there is the spiritual approach, which seeks cohesion and relationship alignment by getting individuals, teams, customers and stakeholders to dialogue about their values and purposes.

In recent research at the UCT Graduate School of Business, we highlight several practices that can help to embed these two approaches into organisational cultures.

Storytelling a tool for workplace integration

Organisations can use narrative inquiry and the storytelling approach to provide the necessary psychological safety for people to explore their feelings of, among others, justice, exclusion and inclusion, respect and disrespect, empowerment and disempowerment and when and around whom they are able to act authentically.

Storytelling engenders trust. Research tells us that trusting work environments are more productive as people have higher levels of conscious engagement, they tend to make fewer errors and collaborate better, while creativity and innovativeness are enhanced. Employees also report higher levels of belonging and subjective happiness. The use of storytelling to share and explore each other’s lived experiences and life histories results in reciprocal empathy and is probably one of the most powerful transformative tools available to organisations when facilitated well.

Countering black and white fatigue

People of colour in South Africa have, over their entire lives, needed to deal with accumulated pain, as well as unjust and inequitable experiences that too often lead to ongoing marginalisation and a continual questioning of their credibility in the workplace.

Employers have an opportunity to provide a “voice” to black fatigue and allow black individuals to authentically share what it is like to walk in their shoes. They can provide them with platforms to speak about the daily overt and micro-aggressions experienced in the workplace; to educate about the effects of implicit biases on others; to express their desire to see tangible reparations from those who benefited from their economic and social demise; as well as to let others know what it feels like to constantly feel undervalued, invisible and disrespected.

On the other side of the spectrum, white fatigue is rooted in perpetually feeling under suspicion despite constantly apologising for apartheid and explaining how they are not racist. Organisations need to help and equip all employees to talk about race, race experiences and enduring privilege. Leaders can also find projects and outlets for the thousands of individuals across the country, black and white, who want to contribute to building a more equitable country, but simply do not know how. There is a massive opportunity for forward-thinking organisations to drive social innovations that will make tangible differences in people’s lives, and thereby provide constructive outlets for people’s intent to action.

The case for inclusive leadership

Leaders will always carry a significant part of the burden in bringing about workplace transformation and South African organisations need leaders who are advocates for diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, gender and gender fluidity, sexual orientation, diversability, social class, educational background, as well as psychometric and thinking style differences. The country needs leaders who have the courage to recognise and highlight the commonalities among people, while at the same time celebrating the differences among them.

Such leaders have the responsibility to find ways to inspire people to change those aspects of society that are inequitable. They must address the barriers and challenges that perpetuate injustice, inequity and especially economic discrepancy and access.

It is time for businesses and organisations to commit to having courageous conversations to change the workplace — inwardly and outwardly. In doing so, they demonstrate the need for, and rebuild the sense of, national unity (which cannot be left up to sporting events only) and mutual responsibility (business, the government and civil society) for making a difference in the lives of all South Africans.

Inclusive leadership in an emerging economy like South Africa requires a reorientation toward social activism and responsibility for the public good — something that cannot be only left up to the national government. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Try this inclusive storey-telling anti-fatigue stuff in a founder-owned-and-managed manufacturing company with 30 staff, then come back to us.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Prof., why is it that people like you can not see beyond race? Why do you just just want to continuous blame the wrongs on history, rather than the failures of the current. Is that what your job is at a university, to tell students, as many others, there is this White “gevaar’ whom took everything away from you. Is that what you teach? That being said, why do academics like yourself continuously write articles about what should be done, rather than saying lets do that together! Well done on your academic achievements! But you have yet to learn anything!

  • Craig B says:

    Useless policy it helped a few and the majority got nothing. With all the corruption we could have just done a straight forward bank transfer of 25 000 to every South African. Which would have got some healing on the go.

  • Robin Smaill says:

    Race has been a very effective political tool in South Africa for a long time, socially it is a disaster. Appointing people on anything but ability to preform the task at hand is an economic step backwards and that inevitably harms the poor disproportionally. The foundational problem in South Africa is the family and particularly parenting. Traumatised parents disrupt the developing brain and their children consequently struggle at school, struggle with relationships and as adults have poor health. The solution is to help parents and not promote people beyond their ability. Race is an irrelevant factor when considering true human vales.

  • PaulKay K says:

    Prof April is trying to give us solutions to inclusivity in business, and at the same time addressing an age old problem in our South African society, that of out and out racist exclusion to a market desperately needing growth to sustain a semblance of economic survival. We are not “effectively address(ing) the lack of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.” As long as we do not recognise the value in others, and as leaders do not implement at least some of his suggestions to foment inclusivity in order to develop the skills that we have kept from others for so long, we will be forever fighting a losing battle. Thank you Prof – wise words for thought

  • David Turner says:

    One would have thought that a Professor of UCT’s Business School would have a different perspective to that of the ANC economic ideologies that are in place – but it seems not so from the above article.
    BBBEE provides some short term solutions that politicians like to highlight, but in the long term has the exact opposite effect – as the Prof highlights in his article. Now he blames it on those who are having it forced down their throats and says we must do it better.
    What does that quote say, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Sorry Prof – not convinced.
    B-BBEE is a failed policy. The only thing it did with its transformationist agenda was to ensure that a really good smokescreen existed to get SOE “transformation” with the state capture stooges in executive positions. For the rest, it was an unnecessary cost to the economy in the sense that we lost disappointed talent to other countries because of the forced promotion of less competent persons.

    It’s 28 years on – half the population was not born in 1994, therefore did not ever live under apartheid. In fact, it is safe to say that more than half the country has been solely educated by the ANC government. Where are the skilled workers? Welders? Plumbers? Cabinet Makers? Brick layers? Nowhere – everyone wants a transformation B-BBEE job behind a desk where they can listen to stories about how good they are.

  • Michael Sham says:

    Isn’t it time that we ask the most obvious question: “what are Whites and Indians doing differently?” Its not that difficult to answer this question:

    1. Whites and Indians are raising children in a strong, small family unit. None of this, it takes a village nonsense…
    2. Whites and Indians value education and kill themselves to provide the best education for their children. Parents spend time with their children, help with homework and attend school events.
    3. Whites and Indians don’t waste time wondering whether capitalism or communism will prevail. That question was answered more than 40 years ago, and event Communist China is a capitalist country!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted