Part 3: Diversity and inclusion in South Africa: What ‘inclusion’ could look like

Building on the idea of oneness, South Africa offers a powerful African concept that supports a deeper understanding of inclusion. Ubuntu means “I am because you are.” It is a mind-set, a point of view, and a way of interacting with other people. Ubuntu does not minimise or ignore differences, but inherently respects and includes the other person out of the awareness that one’s existence, position, work and success are only possible because of the value and role of the people they work with.

Inclusion recognises the fact that the benefits of diversity are not automatic and don’t come about simply by having a diverse workforce. Efforts to engage with and leverage diversity must be intentional, active and ongoing. This is the responsibility of management and executives, as well as a powerful tool for underrepresented individuals and groups to challenge the status quo.

But this is not easy. Having consulted with Leaders at Board and Executive levels, I have observed how it can be a risk to be a Diversity & Inclusion or Transformation champion.  Driving Transformation and Diversity & Inclusion either comes with a risk of being viewed as a mediocre leader, or worse, the topic is avoided by the very people who should care about it.

“As soon as you talk transformation, you are not taken seriously. So, many Executive Committee Members from marginalised groups either avoid it, and some actually speak against it. They don’t want to lead transformation because of the stereotype threat. There’s the view that ‘you are not executive material’ as soon as you start talking about transformation. So who will focus on transformation then? Who says that because you are talking about transformation, you care less about the finances and other parts of the company? It is not shareholder value versus stakeholder value – these are equally important! We want to short cut problems, but as long as we don’t take transformation seriously, things won’t change.” (Molefi, 2013b)

This challenge is true in other countries as well, as evidenced in the following blog excerpt from the United States.

“One major reason that diversity and inclusion is “stuck” and the dominant group does not “get it” is because we are not willing to challenge the status quo.  We have learned that in order to just survive (not necessarily succeed) we have to hide as much of our culture as possible, assimilate and not reveal all of who we are.  Not only do we lose “sense of self” … the organization loses our different perspectives which could lead to the next great breakthrough. We spend a lot of time talking about what the dominant group needs to do differently; what leaders should do. I think we need to spend as much time talking about how we, in underrepresented groups, need to respond differently, take the risks, while accepting the potential consequences.” (Winters, 2013)

I agree with Winters. Courage to raise our voices is urgently needed. Is there room for “do-it-yourself” diversity and inclusion work, or are the risks too great? What does this type of inclusion mean in an economic context where jobs are scarce and challenging the status quo could mean putting your job on the line?

Diversity experts are using terms like “leveraging diversity,” creating a “culture of inclusion” and breaking down “barriers to inclusion” to try to move the conversation forward. But we need more stories and examples that take African contexts and concepts into account. In this context, with lessons from individuals and companies that have challenged the status quo, future blogs will explore the immense benefits of inclusion, without ignoring the very real risks and consequences that still exist and need to be systematically broken down.

By Nene Molefi

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