Part 2: Diversity and inclusion in South Africa: Why is ‘inclusion’ missing?

Following on from our first blog, which explored the difference between diversity and inclusion, we are interested in looking a bit more closely at some of the challenges preventing inclusive behaviour and attitudes in the workplace.

In a recent article in the African Journal for Business Management, April defines inclusion as “creating empowering environments of difference, where people can be themselves, comfortably contributing their full selves and all the ways in which they differ from others, and respecting others without making it difficult for others to be their full selves.” (April et al., 2012)

To assess the extent to which diversity management initiatives are achieving this objective, April conducted qualitative research with business managers participating in a leadership course at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. It was found that inclusion is still one of their greatest concerns despite the fact that many of the companies represented by the sample have implemented affirmative action, equal opportunity or diversity initiatives in post-apartheid South Africa.

So where are things going wrong? Is there a problem with our understanding and application of the principles of inclusion?

The striking thing about most definitions of inclusion is that they all imply an actor who has the power to include or exclude. Translated into the business context, one can easily assume that this means that those in leadership or management positions are the ones with the power and the responsibility to include others. But this still keeps the focus off the managers and onto the people that they are managing.

Let us look at in a different way. Do those in the minority or in a less powerful position have the power to include themselves? Must they wait for someone to include them? And do managers include themselves in diversity initiatives?

Similar to diversity management, many definitions of inclusion suggest that it is a top-down activity, where employees that are seen as different (consciously or unconsciously) or those that are maginalised must be invited to participate, to belong, to be deemed worthy of attention or contributing ideas. While it is critically important for leaders and managers to reflect on how they are treating others and to extend such invitations, there is another way to look at inclusion, which gives the responsibility back to all levels of an organisation.

A leader or person in a powerful position must learn to include themselves, to be included and ask to have access to someone else’s point of view or way of life, and must be willing to listen and learn from this experience. A person from a marginalised or under-represented group must be willing to take the risk to ask to be included, to insist on being included, and to choose not to exclude themselves from transformation initiatives or conversations. They must be willing to stand up for transformation, even if this influences the way they are viewed by their colleagues.

Such a major undertaking (as once stated by the late Steven Bantu Biko, SA’s Black Consciousness Leader) “can only be realised in an atmosphere where people are convinced of the truth inherent in their stand”.  When you have that deep conviction that “Inclusion” is necessary for any business to succeed, it will show in the passion with which you drive Diversity & Inclusion initiatives in your organisation.

This is no easy task, and relies first on deep inner work, in which individuals free themselves from biases, as well as the inner voices that tell them they are outsiders, victims or inferior. In the work that Mandate Molefi has done over the years, a worrying trend has emerged where some of the marginalised groups (Blacks and Women) would align themselves with those defending the status quo – thereby dissociating from championing Diversity & Inclusion or Transformation.  The strength to take risks comes from an innate sense of worth and belonging, as highlighted in the following quote, by a diversity practitioner reflecting on the historic moment when Rosa Parks stood her ground at the front of the bus at the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

“It is generally accepted that “Inclusion” means inviting those who have been historically locked out to “come in”. This well-intentioned meaning must be strengthened. A weakness of this definition is evident. Who has the authority or right to “invite” others in? And how did the “inviters” get in? Finally, who is doing the excluding? It is time we both recognize and accept that we are all born “in”! No one has the right to invite others in! … Inclusion is recognizing our universal “oneness” and interdependence. Inclusion is recognizing that we are “one” even though we are not the “same”.” (Asande, nd)

Our next blog on inclusion will look at this concept of oneness in the South African context.

By Nene Molefi

Nene is the Managing Director of Mandate Molefi, a company that specialises in diversity consulting and training for more than 10 year