SA youth seek and have fluid identities


It would be no exaggeration to claim that apartheid South Africa was second to none in twisting racial identities to a perverse end, manipulating them as a devastating means to divide a country. And although institutionalised racism ended with apartheid in 1994, we are haunted by its legacy still. This is nowhere more evident than in our struggle to forge a non-racial identity in the country.

In the years immediately after the first democratic elections, South Africa embarked on an ambitious and hope-filled project to forge a united nonracial society, as inscribed in our Constitution. Despite the initial glow of “rainbowism”, the “death of optimism”, as some have named it, quickly followed.

As socioeconomic inequalities endured, systemised old identities resurfaced. Nonracialism stuttered backwards (or perhaps sideways) into multiracialism, signifying an ideological shift from our initial nation-building efforts embedded in the Constitution.

We’re still floating in the no-man’s land between those two notions of the South Africa we imagine and the one we live in.

It is this world now inherited by South Africans born in the 1990s, who have much in common with the young global community identified as Generation Z, among which they can be grouped. They’re impatient, associate strongly with the internet and social media, enjoy working and tackling problems collectively, have an affinity with entrepreneurship, aren’t afraid to take risks or challenge the status quo, and have higher expectations of themselves and their world than their parents and earlier generations did.

But they’re also the ones hardest hit by unemployment and they feel a nagging sense of indebtedness to their families and communities in which they live.

This is more pronounced in South Africa, where race remains very much a feature of the everyday lived experience of most South Africans. Hand in hand with the cultural essentialism preached by the apartheid government, racial essentialism — the idea that one’s racial identity can be reduced to a fixed and unchanging essence — is rooted in the South African consciousness.

That is less true for the born-frees. Research into the South African Generation Z — mostly conducted with commercial purposes in mind — shows that, among them, identities are more fluid and contextual, developed through their exchanges with others. They tend to reject rigid categorisations of private and social identity, be it along gender, sexual, age or even racial lines.

But they also carry enormous expectations and responsibilities — such as “black tax” — and they appear to be caught between who they are told they can be and the realities they face, as well as the behaviours and attitudes of their elders and communities. Eager to embrace a fluid humanist identity, they find themselves in a tug-of-war between the highly racialised rules of the society they live in, and the aspirational nonracial society they have been told they will build.


ith these factors in mind, we recently conducted a study with a group of South African Generation Zs to look at the internal and external factors that enable or impede racial identity centrality (the extent to which people normatively define themselves with regard to race). We wanted to learn about, among other things, their lived experiences and how much race still plays a factor in their identity formation, and whether they considered nonracialism a feasible objective as well as how this might affect workplaces.

There was a wide variety of viewpoints and narratives in the group, but there were common threads. The born-frees had differing and, among some individuals, multiple definitions of race. Broadly, we found that they are as conflicted about nonracialism and multiculturalism as older generations, but that some were nonetheless passionate about the notion of a generic humanism.

Importantly, the barrier to achieving the ideal of a nonracial South Africa that was cited most commonly was that of unequal treatment and opportunities. All described either witnessing or experiencing incidents of unequal treatment, especially in the workplace.

Some of our other findings about enablers — and the conclusions we drew from our study — are perhaps obvious, but no less powerful. The participants’ responses showed that people who grow up separately in very different circumstances develop different identities and struggle to relate to each other. And people who have wholly different lived experiences do not feel as if they belong to the same group.

What does this mean for the South African workplace? First, workplaces need to step up their efforts to ensure that unequal treatment and exclusion are eradicated. We need to create situations and environments where diversity is not an exception or granted a special status; rather, it needs to be “downplayed” as the norm. Apartheid cannot be undone without undoing both physical and economic racial separation. Diversity should be something that children are exposed to all of the time and they should see all manner of people holding varied roles and jobs in society and the workplace.

The message we’ve extrapolated from our research is that we cannot break from the past if we only leave those tainted by it in charge of writing a different future. Like their global brethren, many of today’s South African Generation Zs see themselves as unique, and want to be judged by their accomplishments rather than their backgrounds. They yearn for a generic humanism, while at the same time are being held back by the behaviours and narratives of their elders and the societies in which they experience who they are and are supposed to be.

The physical and structural legacies of apartheid still serve as breeding grounds for traditional racial identities and socially constructed divisions. These legacies must be deliberately and systematically dismantled. In the workplace, we have a special opportunity to achieve this.

Kurt April heads the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. This article is based on a paper he wrote with Pierre Cassuto to be published in the journal Effective Executive

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