Institutional racism is still alive and kicking in the workplace


Institutional racism is deeply ingrained in the corporate culture of many South African organisations. Its undermining of the wellbeing of black people, labour and racial peace and its effects on productivity are devastating. But many deny its existence, which means solutions will remain elusive.

Institutional racism is an assault on the dignity of black people. It undermines their health, causes anger and poisons their personal relations. It causes black people to continue to distrust white people, destroying the brittle social cohesion and pushing black people to seek answers in populism, such as calls for wholesale nationalisation.

Colonialism and apartheid were all-encompassing systems, involving not just individuals but also institutions, professions and the public and private sectors.

Sri Lankan race scholar Ambalavaner Sivanandan has described institutional racism as residing “in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions, reinforcing individual prejudices”. In short, it constitutes the “routine ways” in which organisations treat black people.

Because of this, black people receive less favourable treatment than white people. Such differential treatment need not be intentional, and may be practised by white managers whose professionalism is exemplary in all other respects.

Colonialism and apartheid made the dehumanisation of black people in all facets of life, including workplaces, normal. The treatment of black people in organisations is therefore based on the assumption that they are inferior to white people.

In the colonial and apartheid eras, organisational culture was based on the structuring of workplace power based on race — a clear racial division of labour, space, facilities and benefits. There was a racial hierarchy that reserved professional jobs and skills, top management positions and boardrooms for white people.

The workplaces were segregated, from having separate toilets and eating places for white people to lower salaries and less or no benefits and pensions for black people. Until 1994, some skills were reserved for white people only, and some properties were closed to black people.

The colonial and apartheid corporate model is generally based on low wages, minimal skills transfer and minimal rights for the predominantly low-level black employees. In contrast, mainly white executives receive huge remuneration, profit shares and benefits. Basic benefits such as housing, skills upgrades and medical aid are hard to come by for such low-level black employees.

During colonialism and apartheid, there were no obligations on organisations to regulate the health and safety of black employees, who were seen as inferior and therefore not in need of rights. So many black South Africans were victims of mine-related diseases, like asbestosis, which can be directly linked to institutional racism at mining companies and which made black people and their lives dispensable.

In the post-apartheid era, institutional racism is disguised in standard operating policies, whether it’s in the criteria for appointment or promotion, the measuring of competency or the valuing of ideas. The stereotype of black people as inferior has become embedded and white people’s interactions with black people are still largely based on the latter being staff with low pay, low skills and low benefits.

White privilege — still a dominant force in organisations — automatically renders white employees competent and black employees less competent, prone to corruption and having to prove themselves.

Recent studies, including those by Eddie Webster, Karl von Holdt and Andries Bezuidenhout, have confirmed that, although the formal colour bar was codified by apartheid, this situation remains mostly unchanged. Even when black people occupy senior positions, they usually earn less, and have fewer benefits and less responsibility than white people. Increasingly, black applicants are required to have higher qualifications for jobs once done by less-qualified white people.

Another manifestation of racism is the expectation that black employees should work harder than white employees and, because they are black, they should get less remuneration and fewer benefits because they can supposedly make do with less.

Black people in senior positions often have less decision-making power than white people in similar positions, but are expected to do more. Input by black people is often ignored, but if a white employee makes the same suggestion it is taken seriously and acted upon.

There has to be an unequivocal acceptance that institutional racism is widely entrenched. Organisations, especially those that predate 1994, should own up to institutional racism and perhaps set up their own truth and reconciliation commissions to investigate past racist practices. They should pay reparations to current and past employees, and should pursue genuine affirmative action.

Black employees must be treated with dignity, equality and respect. They need to remunerated at the same rate, receive the same benefits and have the same workloads as their white counterparts. Organisations must value black employees’ contributions.

All organisations should introduce compulsory awareness programmes on prejudice and diversity and should do regular race climate surveys to test institutional racism. Diverse workforces are needed to end institutional racism.

William Gumede is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of governance and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times

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