Transformation, inclusivity and diversity. These terms ring familiar to most South African ears and – in many ways – underpin the official dialogue of government, business, organisations and institutions. But has their overuse undermined their true meaning?
That was the subject of a panel discussion held at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Graduate School of Business (GSB) as part of its Africa Month events, which addressed this concern and highlighted some of the lessons learned through efforts to implement diversity over the past 25 years.
The panel comprised Professor Kurt April, Allan Gray Professor in Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion at the GSB; Glenda Kayster, Employment Equity Specialist (Transformation) for UCT; and Gabriel Khan, stream leader for Inclusivity Capacity Building at the Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC), and was moderated by Olwen Manuel, GSB Transformation Forum chairperson.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, each of the panellists was able to draw from their own experiences to illustrate some of the greatest challenges and successes they’ve encountered in their efforts to create a truly welcoming environment for all on campus.
Critiquing the terms
Their message was that instead of enabling people to get to the heart of difficult issues, language often becomes the shield they use to protect themselves from doing the real hard work.
The panellists agreed that this concept of language as a shield can certainly be applied to the terms “transformation”, “inclusivity” and “diversity”.
“Some scholars – like Sara Ahmed – argue that these terms can conceal the categories that underly them – of race and class and gender,” said Khan.
“They are used to talk about them while not responding directly.”
Khan added that it is important to acknowledge that these terms imply and rely in social justice, but do not commit to a redistribution of power.
They suggested that, in order to move beyond those limitations and to formulate a better institutional policy response, attention should be paid to not using these terms loosely, instead creating concepts that can be more firmly relied upon.
“It’s important to not fall into the trap of non-performativity, where every time we articulate a solution, it kind of reproduces the problem,” they said.
“If we create that nurturing environment, every single one of us, every single day, we’re going to see a shift in the right places, because we’re willing to listen to one another.”
With her vast experience in the field of human resource management, specialising in employment equity, there are few people who know the pitfalls of language better than Kayster.
“Often, employment equity is viewed as only the legal stuff. But we also know that there’s a moral imperative,” she said.
While, previously, evening out inequality by getting the numbers right was what mattered most, the past few years have seen a major shift in focus towards also changing the hearts and minds of people.
“The visible stuff is the easier stuff. Even behaviour can be changed by putting policies and procedures in place for people to comply with,” said Kayster.
“Until I actually believe that’s the right thing to do, I’m not going to be making a difference. I’m probably only going to resist the change in conscious and unconscious ways.”
She concluded by saying that only once all employees commit to creating a nurturing environment, by simply doing small things to make diverse people feel welcome in UCTʼs buildings and environments, will true transformation take place.
“If we create that nurturing environment, every single one of us, every single day, we’re going to see a shift in the right places, because we’re willing to listen to one another,” she said.
Over the past decade or two, the GSB has been doing a great deal to become a more nurturing and accommodating environment for a wide range of people.
“When I arrived here more than 20 years ago, I was the first academic of colour in this building. It was run mostly by white males and a few white women,” recalled April.
“I was an oddity as an academic.”
These days, both the staff contingent and the students represent a much broader intersection of society.
This, of course, didn’t just happen by chance but rather as the result of a concerted effort to introduce changes not only to the environment, but also the curriculum.
“Most people think ‘curriculum’ only refers to the content that we teach, but looking at formal academic views on curriculum, it includes the processes that we use, the symbols, the rituals, the value systems within an institution,” explained April.
Over the past few years, a number of significant changes have been introduced to the GSB’s curriculum as a whole, from dropping the restrictive formal dress code to encouraging non-traditional business-school research topics, such as deconstructing whiteness, white privilege and looking at black women’s oppression through structures of power.
One of the most exciting and important introductions to the GSB’s curriculum has been the Case Writing Centre. They have a mandate to create African-based, emerging-market-based knowledge.
“Not to do away with Harvard cases, but I think to complement those,” said April.
“We still need the traditional theorists, but we now also need to know what’s going on in Egypt and Morocco and Liberia and Nigeria.”
Furthermore, GSB lecturers encourage students to be more critical of the knowledge they receive and to bring their personal narratives to challenge dominant theories.
“Most people think ‘curriculum’ only refers to the content that we teach, but ... it includes the processes that we use, the symbols, the rituals, the value systems within an institution.”
All three panellists agreed that, ultimately, sharing personal narratives is key for true transformation to take place.
“As you hear people’s stories, if you’re open, there’s sort of a democracy of emotion when we share our stories and narratives,” said April.
He proffered that instead of having the occasional “diversity day” every once in a while, much more awareness, sensitivity and empathy can be cultivated through providing a platform for regular, informal conversation to take place among a diverse range of students and staff.
Khan echoed this, saying that traditional models of convening should also be problematised as part of the drive for true transformation within institutions. The committee model, in particular, is an old-fashioned and colonial way of meeting and talking that may not, in fact, be the best, easiest or most productive way to converse.
“I fundamentally believe that talk is change,” concluded April.
“Not that talk will lead to change, but that actually in conversation we change.”
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