Sunday, June 10, 2007

Racial Relations in the Workplace

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.


Thomas Blaser said...

This is very common stuff. My friend arrived at the law firm and the black man at the copy machine told her that she will be copying for the rest of her career even though she is doing her articles. And indeed, they have black people working there doing basically nothing and earning big salaries because the white boss (and client) does not trust them with serious work. But it looks good to have black people on the pay roll. It is a scandal. So ja, you have to be a trouble maker. What you want is to earn people's respect and you only get that if you stand your ground. Otherwise, you will always be considered a push-over who is not worth his/her salt. Of course, you need to negotiate with yourself what is in your best interest. But in the long run, if you want to advance and make a mark, you cannot just roll-over and play dead.

Valentin said...

Dear Ijeoma, a very interesting post about racial tensions at the work-place, which are very relevant to South Africa.
I also believe that in order to eliminate any assumptions about yourself at the work-place (like you being called "racist) is to give the best of yourself and treat everybody equally.
Like you say, "your goal is your bottom line".
At the same time, yes, you need to continue with your own principles and still be assertive and strong about your views and beliefs, whenever you need to be.
That's what I believe!

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

It really is scandalous!! I would be totally insulted if I was just employed as a 'stooge' to make up the BEE quota. But you see, it's a serious challenge that overshadows all aspects of South African society. I get this impression that blacks in this country have been conditioned to see themselves as second and even third class citizens, while white people are seen to be intelligent and all-knowing. Naturally, first class citizens. However, as a black person, if you do stand up to be counted, you damn well better be ready to take the 'heat'. That's why Nigerians are seen as troublemakers, we are hard-working and equal to anyone in all ramifications. Living here has been a real lesson in life for me!!

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

You know, I think it is a shame that this situation is 'common stuff' as Thomas terms it. Politics is part and parcel of the workplace but racism is a whole different ball game. And in the South African context it is a mind-set Valentin. I doubt that just 'friendliness' can overcome racial prejudice. I am ever hopeful still, that in the years ahead change will continue to occur, until a more positive attitude born out of respect and tolerance become the norm rather than the exception.

Adam N. Mukendi said...

Hi Ije,
I like your ending;'In the end, your goal is the bottom line'. That's so true. We have to be careful when we take any action in a new environment. It's obvious that no one knows you at your internship place. They have 3 months to juge you and every day is a hearing. We don't have time to show or expose our principle of life...racist or not. But we can make friends who may cover us and defend our interest when we are juged by contumas in the neighbour office. Wisdom and openess are keys.

Roy Blumenthal said...

Hmmmmmmmmm. Interesting post. Well written. But flawed.

You've asserted that she's 'been labeled a racist'. In actual fact, SHE's the one saying she's been labeled a racist.

Given the facts as they stand, we don't KNOW that this is the case. We can certainly SUSPECT it to be so. Doesn't mean it IS so.

Secondly, this story is very one-sided. We simply don't know enough about the situation to tell WHAT is going on.

In my experience in the workplace, one often finds that SOME interns reallllllly perform well, and others simply don't.

I don't know anything at all about your friend. But I'm tempted to ask several questions:

1. Is she working to the maximum of her abilities?

2. Is she showing an enthusiastic attitude to the tasks assigned to her? Or is she a grumbler?

3. Is she in fact competent? Or, rather, is she excellent at what she does?

4. Is her default position to assume that race or sexism is the issue, when it could be numerous other issues?

5. Is it possible that she's had a personality clash with the dude who she's supposed to be working with?

Please recall Prof Mbigi's wonderful attitude in the short speech of his I heard. 'Find the problem areas, and tackle them.'

I'm VERY nervous about drawing any conclusions at all from her highly biased, highly emotional anecdotal evidence.

Dig deeper. This is a non-trivial issue, and it demands a much more considered approach.

Blue skies

Roy Blumenthal said...

Yo Susan...

Congrats on getting into BRUNSWICK! Very cool indeed!

Blue skies

Susan Arthur said...

Thanks for the congratulations Roy! It's going very well so far- read more about it on my blog. Very well considered response to this blog post. I'm about to read your follow up, Ijeoma, and see what you say.