Yesterday, after the mentoring workshop, I decided to go to the Rosebank Mall to do some grocery shopping and air my head. I ran into a young lady who recently graduated from Wits Law School. I invited her to have some coffee/tea with me. As the waiter took our orders, the conversation was dominated by her experiences at the law firm where she was doing her articles.
As a foreigner, with the luxury of not being directly involved in the various tensions around race, ethnicity and cultural heritage in South Africa, I am careful not to allow myself to become too embroilled in these debates. However, being black also means that sometimes I am affected by these tensions whether directly or indirectly. When they do occur, I am able to put things in context because I don't have the historical baggage of apartheid. I am also able to convey my feelings of displeasure quite openly without bitterness and rancour. This is not to say that I am not affected by such incidents when they occur, I try to put them in perspective and focus on my immediate goals. I raise this particular issue because there are increasingly tensions arising from varying perceptions of racial discrimination, in the workplace in South Africa.
This story told by my friend is one such example. The young lady was feeling the pressure of being one of the few black people in a white-dominated law firm (which is a natural phenomenon in present-day corporate South Africa). There was a particular incident where she felt her productivity and growth was being undermined. Her line manager was allocating more work to her white counterpart (also a Wits law graduate), and this would affect her assesment at the end of the internship. She was concerned and went to one of the senior partners who she had a good relationship with and sought his advice. He suggested that perhaps the reason why the other intern was getting most of the work, was because she was working on a particular case file with the line manager. Just as she (my friend) was currently working on a particular case with him. He advised that she should wait until a particular time when the case would have concluded, and if she was still not being given any work then he would look into the matter. She took his advice and instead concentrated on doing a good job on the cases she was assigned. She now however, has gained the reputation of being a racist and a troublemaker.
This reminds me of what Helen Geber (Wits Center for Learning and Teaching Development) said at the mentoring workshop, about letting your mentor guide you during the internship process and ensuring that you are not seen as a troublemaker. In my view, my friend did take the approved route. The consequences are that she is now seen to be racist. It makes me wonder what the definition of 'racism' is in South Africa. It also underscores some of the really burning issues plaguing the corporate world in South Africa. There is the perception that black people are not competent. I will not use the word 'generally' because I'd like to believe that in the twenty first century, this view cannot possibly hold any water. It is my belief that people should be judged individually based on merit.
The playing field is not level in South Africa due to apartheid laws that in the past, excluded black South Africans from quality education. Presently, there is a concerted effort to redress that imbalance through government sponsored grants, corporate funding and private sponsorships (see Susan Mwangi's article in FM Campus, May 25 2006). I am very realistic about the fact that black South Africans need to be highly pro-active if inroads are to be made in bridging the gap. It is a long hard road that must be taken. As Kuseni Dlamini advises, black South Africans must take on a 'can do' attitude, embrace the prospect of failure and resolve to keep on trying until success is attained. My advice to my friend was that she make an effort to change the growing perception of her person within the organisation. At the same time not to compromise her principles, but also to remember that she's just at the beginning of her professional life. Sometimes delicate diplomacy is required. It is also important to always be focused on the reason that she is there, to acquire experience and develop herself professionally. In the end your goal is the bottom line.