What the corporate world can learn from South Africa’s post-apartheid struggles

Protesters demonstrate in Pretoria, South Africa.
Protesters demonstrate in Pretoria, South Africa.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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For many South Africans, the images of Black Lives Matter protests displayed across their TV screens have evoked memories of the anti-racism activism that consumed the country in the 1970s and 1980s. The anti-apartheid movement, which called for the freedom and liberty of Black people and equal rights for all South Africans, would eventually spread across the world. Decades of toil and blood resulted in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and a fragile national experiment built on the concept of “non-racialism” and presented to the world as the “Rainbow Nation.”

The Black Lives Matter movement might signal the expiry of that ideal.

Almost three decades of pained discussions, affirmative action quotas, and weak diversity programs have failed to shift stark imbalances in the country’s economy and industries. Despite Black people making up 80% of the population, they comprise only 10% of CEOs of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, according to a 2019 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Income inequality has worsened, with white people still more likely to find work and earn more than other population groups. These disparities manifest in living conditions, with many Black South Africans still confined to townships on the outskirts of core centres of productivity.

Why hasn’t South Africa made more progress, given that race and racial justice have been a consistent topic of discussion? The answer might be in the demands of a younger generation, who don’t want to rest on the ideals of non-racialism, but instead wish to return to an understanding of the fight against racism as an active and ever-present struggle.

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Non-racialism vs. anti-racism

South Africans have, in recent years, increasingly been interrogating the ideal of “non-racialism,” which was adopted by the country as the framework for its post-apartheid society. Non-racialism is based on the idea that racial categories were invented and applied to us by our forebears, and that in order to overcome racism, we need to work together to break free from the historic definitions of race and see beyond our constructed differences.

“Non-racialism is not just a bland thing. It is not just an absence of racism — that’s empty,” former South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs said when articulating the ideal in 1985. “In fact, the reality of developing a non-racial culture in South Africa is much richer than that. It is much more active, more dynamic…it is a South African personality that is being constructed.”

This approach was enshrined in the country’s constitution in an attempt to diffuse the country’s racially divisive past, and prevent that hatred from seeping into South Africa’s nascent democratic social fibre. “There can be no salvation for our beleaguered country but the realization by all and sundry that we are one people—black and white,” former South African president Nelson Mandela said in 1991. “Cast in a mould that can be different, but one interdependent people all the same—irrespective of the political and ideological creed that each one of us might hold dear.”

Non-racialism has been used to inform all civic participation in the country’s 26-year-old democracy. ” While its original meaning was “anti-racist in its deepest kind of sense,” says Crain Soudien, a professor and CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council, over time it has come to mean many things, from “multi-racialism” to “color-blindness” he says.

Soudien was speaking on a recent webinar inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which asked panelists to consider how the systemic racism still prevalent in South African society could be subverted. The debate that took place between Soudien and fellow panelist Eusebius McKaiser, a journalist and analyst, is emblematic of how a younger generation of South Africans is agitating for current understandings of non-racialism to be revisited, largely because of how little progress the country has made in the 26 years since political power was taken by its Black-majority population. “We are not, and should not, be fighting for a non-racial South Africa,” McKaiser said. “We should be fighting for an anti-racist South Africa.”

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Post-1994 legacy

South Africa has struggled to engage in the act of dismantling systemic racism, a fact evident in one of its biggest fault lines: ownership of its economy.

“We can’t begin to talk about anti-racism and non-racialism…when the entire solid part of the economy is still very much in the hands of white people,” says Robert Shivambu, a media manager for Amnesty International in South Africa. “Even though we have Black people who are professionals…they are still very much in the minority. This is 26 years after freedom. We should be talking about Black people owning the economy of South Africa.”

When it came to power in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), instituted Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) quotas in formal economic arenas in an effort to address the economic exploitation and exclusion that people of color have endured for three hundred years.

Many companies have complied with the legislation, which required that a certain degree of investment and ownership be in the hands of Black professionals. But that’s often where their attempts at racial justice have stopped. As a result, many Black South Africans still feel forced to face significant racial, gendered, and cultural exclusion when they enter the workplace.

As an example, law student Mpheri Mashangoane, 20, says he would welcome more flexible definitions of what constitutes “professional” in a work environment, he says. “A lot of our mannerisms as Black people aren’t seen as that. White counterparts are allowed to be white and I have to be them, you know?” It’s a common sentiment pronounced by his Black peers, who feel they have to work extra hard to be taken as seriously, and to earn the same amount, as their white counterparts.

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Breaking free

South Africa’s “born-free generation”—the name given to children born in South Africa after its first democratic elections in 1994—is now headed for the private sector, and carrying with them demands for radical change.

This generation has been participating in the country’s political, social, and economic environments in new ways. With no real tangible evidence of what non-racialism has achieved for the past two decades, they have led protests calling for the removal of colonial-era monuments, free university education, and that academic curricula be scrubbed of colonial frameworks.

What this generation is demanding, much like their counterparts in the US, is an acknowledgement that there are engrained structural barriers to entry and success in the corporate sector, and economy as a whole, for people of color in South Africa; that Blackness and whiteness continue to exist as part of a racist social hierarchy; and that the answer to these challenges might not lie in past experiences of race, but current ones.

“Young people want change but they also have solutions to the racism that they experience on a daily basis,” Busisiwe Nkosi, a coordinator for the Anti-Racism Network South Africa, said on the webinar. “Young people’s experiences today are not so different to the experiences they [had] during apartheid. As adults, as the older generation, there is a lot that can be taken from young people, that can be learned from young people, that can be helpful in fighting racism.”

For 26 years, South Africa’s experiment with non-racialism has had the perhaps unintended effect of assigning difficult questions of racism to employment quotas and the academic sphere.

This experience has made it clear that companies have an important part to play—even a responsibility—to help dismantle the forms of institutionalized racism that people of color experience at work and are subjected to in society. In South Africa, it can still begin with small things, such as prioritizing family responsibility leave, given that the concept of the nuclear family for Black workers tends to be more fluid than in white households. There also needs to be more transparency and equality around remuneration.

The key takeaway from South Africa for companies hoping to build their own anti-racist cultures is that the task of tackling racism is an ongoing, active practice. Companies can use this moment to not only pay lip service to diversity, but to employ equal pay and improve access to opportunity. By actively interrogating issues of race, they can create conditions that will enable a company and its diverse staff to thrive.

—With additional reporting by Jackie Bischof