Defend Truth


Strong commitment to diversity is more than sound business practice — it builds dignity


Makosha Maja-Rasethaba (MK) is the Chief Diversity Officer of M&C Saatchi Group South Africa as well as Head of Strategy for M&C Saatchi Abel, Johannesburg.

Diversity is about more than race and gender — it includes class, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, and cultures. Similar people think similar things, and so the more diverse you are as a group, company, and organisation, the better your output. The better the output, the more attractive the bottom line.

When Siya Kolisi became only the second man to lift the Webb Ellis trophy aloft twice on a damp Paris night, the country erupted with joy. They’d done it again. Against all odds, the Springboks had emerged victorious and given the country something to celebrate — except this time, the victory, which confirmed that South Africa is the most successful rugby team ever, was extra special.

The most diverse team in our country’s history proved that 2019 was no fluke. Diversity and inclusion unleash excellence — if ever you needed a symbol of this that everyone can understand, this is it.

And as with all fairy tales, it doesn’t just end with Kolisi dancing in the rain. When he burst through the sliding doors at OR Tambo Airport, working his adoring fans into a frenzy, he came with a message and a challenge. At the press conference, he challenged us all to be brave, to embrace different cultures and people, to take the feeling of goodwill forward, to have difficult conversations and to ask: “How do we get better in South Africa?”

As South Africa heads deeper into election season there is likely to be more of a spotlight on important challenges in the country, but some of what we will read in the coming months will be driven by opportunism with performance at the polls being the primary driver.

On the other hand, let’s not be naïve enough to presume that talk without much action is the preserve of some public personae. Many businesses and prominent organisations in South Africa, if we are brutally honest, talk the talk, while walking the talk is more lacklustre.

This is in no way a diatribe, but rather a clarion call to all patriots to use the current goodwill to embrace the spirit of diversity and inclusivity out of a sense of conscience and an appreciation that tactically, it will unleash productivity, creativity and success on a scale the country has never seen.

A brave comment, one might contend. Fair enough, but just imagine a country where inclusivity is the compass, where this single, shared orientation is rooted in humanity and powered by a strong sense of conscience and responsibility. Imagine a countrywide drive fueled by the excitement, wonder and awe at the sheer possibility that true diversity delivers.

To be clear, this is not about settling into a pair of rose-tinted glasses. Rather, it is about accepting challenges, listening while also hearing, exposing blindspots, learning and leading.

Transformation and genuine inclusivity

The term transformation evokes instant and passionate responses, ironically as diverse as the end it seeks to achieve. At its worst, it is sometimes viewed as a box-ticking exercise.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Achieving a certain level of diversity unlocks more new business opportunities. But therein lies the challenge for businesses in South Africa — if you approach a diversity strategy with the target being new business acquisition only, you are missing out on the spirit of inclusivity. This is a slippery slope that leads to the dreaded box-ticking.

When I walked into my place of work for the first time, I encountered an organisation that had consciously, and deliberately, woven diversity into the fabric of the group. It wasn’t a target, it was a way of being. It is by no means the only business doing this, but it is one from which I am able to build a view of the barrier-breaking potential of diversity of thought.

Diversity is about more than race and gender — it includes class, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, and cultures. Similar people think similar things, and so the more diverse you are as a group, company, and organisation, the better your output. The better the output, the more attractive the bottom line.

However, to understand diversity is to appreciate that it is not a destination. Diversity is not the end point; it is the starting point of a lifelong journey. It is a journey of discovery that is as exciting and rewarding as it is challenging. It is a journey of deliberately, actively, and purposefully driving inclusion.

Turning the lens inwards, having a majority black-owned, predominantly female business is a powerful advantage. This is by design, though, not chance. With an orientation anchored by inclusivity, we understood from day one that our purpose extended beyond just our walls, but towards impacting and transforming our industry. Done at scale, across industries, it becomes apparent how quickly meaningful change can materialise.

Why? Because without actively driving inclusion from the base of diversity in all its guises, we cannot authentically address the imposter syndrome and anxiety felt by many young, talented people who feel out of place, not just in the creative industries, but across all pillars of our society. We are morally compelled to build safe spaces and safe industries.

Similarly, graduate programmes — when approached the same way — can identify young, diverse, and exciting talent, upskill them and then introduce them into the formal economy. Done broadly, just imagine the impact of bringing dignity into the lives and families of thousands of people who may otherwise have been excluded or overlooked. This is called breaking the shackles of institutional exclusion.

The pursuit of diversity and inclusion is more than an HR exercise with important for-good campaigns and CSI initiatives. I fundamentally believe that there is nothing more exciting than the prospect of unleashing the nation-building power of diversity both within our walls and beyond them, both through consciously driving inclusion and in the impact of our work.

We extend a clarion call to everyone in our industry and beyond: join the journey towards inclusivity for the sake of humanity and to inculcate a countrywide culture that embraces diversity of thought. Like a rugby team made up of diverse characters and vastly different positions with different objectives, we all have influence within our own walls and spheres – at scale this would go a long way towards finally unleashing this beautiful country’s potential. DM


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  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    All well and good but diversity alone does not guarantee that food is put on the table. Diversity alone – no. Diversity with skills and competence a resounding yes. But with the education system in a shambles, I fear our skills pool is shrinking which is a huge red flag

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