Coloured execs battle to get to the top

IDENTITY

New research from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business shows that coloured professionals are struggling to transcend apartheid-imposed labels of identity and that this has negatively affected them in the workplace — making it harder for them to succeed at senior management level.

This is backed up by the Employment Equity Commission report for 2017-2018. A snapshot of the country’s workforce, the report lays bare the glacial progress corporate South Africa has made in the past 20 years towards transformation. Just under 68% of top positions in business are still filled by white South Africans, followed by 14.3% by black African South Africans. Indian South Africans occupy 9.4% of top positions and coloured professionals are in only 5.1% of such jobs — despite representing 9% of the population (roughly the same as white South Africans).

The inescapable conclusion of this is that 25 years of democracy, employment equity legislation, policies and work-based practices have contributed little to the deracialisation of the management profession. Coloured South Africans in particular remain disproportionately poorly represented.

The failure of the legislation to effect change suggests that there may be other factors at play and the business school’s research suggests that a crisis of identity among coloured people is at the heart of the issue.

A crisis of identity

Bar the rigorous research conducted by Ruben Richards and covered in the book Bastaards or Humans: The Unspoken Heritage of Coloured People, few have attempted to unpack the complexity of coloured identity in South Africa, let alone in the workplace.


Since the propagation of Black Consciousness ideology in the 1970s, the notion of a coloured identity has been an emotive and contentious issue among the middle class, educated and politically astute, who opposed the classification. In post-apartheid South Africa, the focus has been on creating a collective national identity, but this appears to have resulted in further marginalisation of coloured people along with a dissonance in ideological and cultural beliefs among them.

The business school’s research explored the notion of double consciousness and a diminished sense of belonging — a concept discussed at length in Mohamed Adhikari’s book Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community.

Of particular interest were the perceptions of coloured identity and how this affected coloured professionals’ work-based experiences. Common responses from respondents included the sense of “being watched” by superiors and having to work harder than peers to contradict stereotypes, for instance, of coloured people being lazy, unmotivated and fond of drinking.

Many respondents who attained leadership positions reportedly became alienated from others in their community by preferring to assimilate into the dominant economic white group at the workplace — beginning to watch rugby, taking up cycling and golfing or listening to different music to fit in. More concerning, there was evidence that they withheld support and mentorship from other coloured professionals and adopted unhealthy levels of competitiveness — what we termed “Cape cobra syndrome”.

Once in top positions, several individuals described themselves as being powerless to effect real change. They found themselves not having access to the right white networks in the private sector and similarly in the public sector, and also did not have access to the right networks in the black African government sector.

Boardroom decisions were often taken outside of work without their involvement and then ratified afterwards in the office. Many coloured professionals also said they felt like token appointments (empowered powerlessness).

What is colouredness?

Historically, the intrinsic nature of colouredness is based on the ideology of racial hybridity and the misconception that it resulted from interbreeding between white and black people. This brought the stigma of racial inferiority and illegitimacy, which has been prevalent in populist thinking and is still found in work environments. On a psychological level, the effect is debilitating, contributing to feelings of low self-esteem and low confidence.

Perhaps the most worrying finding of the research was the lack of support and mentoring from the coloured professional community. Conventional wisdom holds that discrimination against minority groups can be redressed by placing more people in positions of power to help to mentor juniors, and to help to improve outcomes for others.

But, in understanding the power dynamics at play and potential access, participants in the study chose cross-race mentors — and did not seek out other coloured protégés once in positions of power. They displayed characteristics of self-distancing, manifesting in individuals seeing themselves as unique in their ambition and commitment. This is often perpetuated in the vernacular of white people when addressing skilled coloured individuals.

There was furthermore a denial of discrimination, resulting in opposition to actions aimed at redressing inequalities and improving conditions. Together with “workplace belonging insecurity” (different to community belonging), the study found an alarming prevalence of negative stereotypes in the workplace, as well as self-deprecation, perpetuating the denigration of coloured identity.

Where to from here?

The status quo in South Africa’s workplaces, particularly as it relates to coloured professionals, clearly needs to shift. The study suggests that, if corporate South Africa wants to change, it has to redesign transformation and employment equity policies so that they are properly inclusive of coloured people and make provision for equal participation under the definition of regionally appropriate, designated groups.

In addition, changing perceptions about coloured identity may help to move the thinking beyond the stigmatising notion of “mixed race” identity and towards seeing cultural identities comprising detailed bodies of knowledge, specific cultural practices, memories, rituals and modes of being.

As sociologist Zimitri Erasmus, of the University of the Witwatersrand, puts it: “We can’t deny the meanings attached to skin colour. But we can learn to live differently in our skins. There is more than one way to be coloured and more than one way to be black.”

Kurt April is an endowed professor and Allan Gray chair of leadership, diversity and inclusion at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business and is co-author of the study Diasporic Double Consciousness, Créolité and Identity of Coloured Professionals in South Africa, with Alun Josias

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