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Tackling racial stereotypes that are choking South Africa's economic growth

Racial discrimination takes a toll on the physical, mental and emotional well being of everybody, even when we are not conscious of it as perpetrators and as recipients. Dudu Msomi, CEO of Busara Leadership Partners told a recent the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) forum that South Africa remains a divided society with dire economic prospects, and that ultimately, our organisations and the country will bear the cost of not maximising all available talents to make society prosper for all.

A high unemployment rate, the poor quality of education, spatial divides which hobble development and uneven public services are among the challenges the country faces, Msomi said. 

In addition to this, people have “become so used to racism for so long, we base our judgments on stereotypes rather than judging people individually,” consultant and director in localisation and entrepreneurship, Louise Paulsen added. 

Reforming racist attitudes 
Adriaan Groenewald, founder of The Leadership Platform and Leadership Transformation Platform on CliffCentral said the majority of white South Africans are recovering racists, who “need to realise that the propensity to racial prejudice is and will always be there.” 

As whites were “reared in an environment where racism was commonplace and accepted, it is ingrained in their belief system.” He said it was necessary for recovering racists to “realise, admit and actively work on their racism,” as in an open and interconnected society, there would be less and less place for racists to hide. 
Decades of institutionalised superiority rule and propaganda had caused damage to both the proponents and recipients of racism.  

“One portion of our population suffers from superiority complex, and the other portion from an inferiority complex. These opposites do not make for a successful nation or an environment of clear communication, trust and unity. We must see this suffering for what it is and deal with it in an appropriate manner.” 

Groenewald said South Africans had to work in order to evolve these weaknesses into strengths, and to “move forward as a nation in a vigilant and disciplined way. The journey of overcoming racism or inferiority is a personal one, but it prepares the way for building bridges, relationships, the economy and the country.” 

Managing director of Ethics Monitoring & Management Services, Cynthia Schoeman said that when considering racism and racial stereotyping within an ethical framework, most people already know what is right and wrong: “Misconduct is very rarely the result of an absence of knowledge. We need to focus on trying to get people to make better choices.” She said conduct could not be separated from South Africa’s history: “We are not sitting with a blank piece of paper, but rather with a deeply damaged and unjust past.” 

Schoeman called on corporates to initiate tough conversations within their organisations. “We cannot be naïve and pretend that the few cases of racism highlighted in the media are the exception. We cannot cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t happen to us.”  

“If we are going to start building a better society, there has to be conscious, deliberate and intentional focus on this,” she added. 

Corporate transformation 
Msomi argued that while the majority of South Africans claim to be committed to the values espoused in the Constitution, business was only willing to address the injustices of the past once forced to do so through legislation.  

Corporate South Africa was “becoming a very difficult and hostile environment for a lot of black professionals,” Paulsen added. 
President of the Black Management Forum Mncane Mthunzi said while South Africa had a very high unemployment rate, a “huge number of black graduates are not being absorbed, but are rather ignored by corporate South Africa.” 

“The governing party has sold us reformation, but we have never really experienced transformation. By its very nature transformation is radical.” He said it was racist and simply not true to say South Africa must grow its economy in order for transformation to happen. “The problems we have in South Africa are deep seated. We must have confidence in black talent and confidence in ourselves. We will have black people in dominance, it is only a matter of time.” 

Mthunzi criticised the slow pace of transformation at large corporates: “The graduates of the Fees Must Fall movement will be in corporate corridors in the next three to five years and they will not tolerate the current pace of change. Failure to transform is going to create problems for ourselves.” 

“How will there be change if we keep tip-toeing and not disrupting the status quo?”  Msomi asked. By continuing to only see each other in terms of stereotypes and not using our potential to see humanity in each other, we cannot overcome the shackles of our past and will remain in bondage, she concluded. 

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