Deep transformation and common values hold key to a non-racial South Africa

17 September 2007

A common identity can become a prison, says leading academic.

Transformation within South African organisations and society is happening at the superficial level of policies and laws.

This was the central debate of a discussion, titled Diversity and Discrimination: New leadership challenges, held at the Graduate School of Business (GSB).

The discussion stirred deep-seated emotions and did not provide any easy answers. What emerged was a general consensus that South African organisations could be doing better in terms of transformation.

"People are still carrying the emotional and psychological baggage of our segregated past and real unity can only come about through open discussion, empathy and a respect for human dignity," said Professor Julian Sonn, a key speaker on the discussion panel.

The event formed part of the UCT Respect Programme, created to provide a forum for discussing key issues of transformation within the university and broader society, and brought together world-renowned academics in the fields of race relations and diversity.

Leading the discussion were Professor David Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute and author of the critically acclaimed publication, The Racial State, and Philomena Essed, Professor of Critical Race, Gender and Leadership Studies at Antioch University and author of Everyday Racism.

They were joined on the discussion panel by local academic Professor Julian Sonn from the University of Stellenbosch and Claire Kelly, research co-ordinator for Intercultural and Diversity Studies at UCT. Together they led an open, frank debate about transformation, both within organisations and South African society, and the leadership challenges that go with it.

At the core of the issue lies the fact that people are not getting to grips with issues surrounding race and identity and have a tendency to forget the past rather than to deal openly with it.

Kelly's case study work has found that generally the conversation around transformation sits solely at the superficial level of employment equity.

"Our research has shown that organisations are not engaging in 'deep transformation' but simply following the rules set out in the Employment Equity Act," said Kelly. "This only serves to create a hostile environment and does nothing to encourage transformation on a constructive level. Organisations need to move past this surface level and start creating spaces where issues of race and difference can be engaged with more meaningfully," she said.

Essed added that South African leaders need to show more respect for individuality and that recognising people for who they are, not what they are (gender, race, religion), is the key to creating a culture of dignity and respect.

"The term 'diversity' is ambivalent," said Essed. "I prefer that people recognise the full individuality of a person - each of us is equal in our humanity but we are all different, even if our skin colour is the same."

Essed also maintained that the perpetual search for a common South African identity was, in fact, a dangerous exercise.

"South Africans should rather search for common values and learn how to live and behave so as to honour them and each other. A common identity can in reality become a kind of prison - a source of coercion and constraint.

"Those who act outside of the mould may come to be perceived as a threat and the spirit of difference and individuality is no longer celebrated," said Essed.

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