/ 21 March 2022

Human Rights Day is the perfect opportunity to confront ongoing racism

Human Rights Council: 'scars Of Apartheid Remain'

Virtually every aspect of our lives in South Africa has a serious need for change. From politics to education, health care, gender issues, workplace culture and productivity, unemployment, corruption, crime, poverty, race relations and the inequality gap.

If we are hoping that someone will come along and magically fix everything, then a terrible thing will happen… Nothing! Hope has never been a winning strategy.

I hold a firm and unwavering belief that we each have a moral obligation to help to uplift the people of this country and to create a just and equal society. And while we cannot individually change the world, we can most certainly change things within our own sphere of influence, which includes our network, the people we interact with, and our businesses. We have a long history of trying to change other people in South Africa and it hasn’t worked. Perhaps it’s time that we start trying to change ourselves?

There is a metaphor from Jim Kwik that I love and that I use a lot in our workshops: If the egg is broken from the outside, life ends. If it is broken from the inside, life begins. Change always begins from the inside. Inside your heart and inside your mind.

For me, the birthplace of change in South Africa is the area of race relations, the most pervasive and destructive outcome of our unjust past. More specifically, learning to talk openly and honestly about race and having courageous conversations that will open the minds of the people who are struggling with change.

Racism did not miraculously disappear 28 years ago when South Africa became a democracy. It lingers on like a cancer that permeates and touches everything in our society. Trying to pretend it doesn’t exist is naïve at best, and irresponsible at worst.

The disingenuity of being colour blind

Unfortunately, something that I often hear from white people is: “I am not a racist because I don’t see colour. Everyone is the same to me.” Firstly, this simply isn’t true. More importantly, when we pretend that skin colour does not matter and all people are the same regardless of colour, we are saying that racial judgements that happen daily are happening because of racial differences, not racism. To tell a black person you don’t see colour is offensive because it completely disregards the fact that his/her whole life has been determined by their colour.

To teach a black child that skin colour doesn’t matter is to teach them that the history of their families – a history that banned inter-racial marriages, prohibited black people from doing certain jobs, required pass books, and ensured black children could not learn maths and science – wasn’t because of skin colour, but because their mothers and fathers, grandparents, and great grandparents were inferior, and by extension, that they are also inferior.

This is unacceptable. It was unacceptable 370 years ago when South Africa was colonised. It was unacceptable in 1910 when racial discrimination was formally instituted. It was unacceptable in 1953 when the Bantu Education Act officially became law, with Henrik Verwoerd stating that: “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”

And today, in 2022, it is still unacceptable. And the only way we can make lasting and meaningful change is if we overcome racial biases and effectively work together from a place of mutual respect, trust and tolerance.

The hard conversations are the most important

In 1992 I launched Labour Link, a race relations consultancy aimed at confronting racism in the workplace.

During that time, I learnt a huge amount about South Africa’s past and the realities of our workspaces. I also learnt the difference between prejudice, discrimination and racism.

Prejudice: The pre-judgement of a person based on the group from which they come

Discrimination: When you act out on your prejudice

Racism: When prejudice and discrimination are supported by a position of authority and power

There are some powerful messages to get out there to our fellow South Africans. The first is that there is no one group superior or inferior to another. We are all just different and the sooner we learn to respect and tolerate our differences the better off our country would be. The second is that you cannot ignore the socio-political environment in which employees are living and working.

We can’t begin to influence change without asking the difficult questions and having the hard conversations. The first is extremely personal: “Am I biased towards people who are different from me?” I have personally walked this journey and had to painfully admit to myself that I have been biased. The prejudices that I grew up with in my privileged formative years, still lurk deeply in my unconscious mind, but I work on it each and every day.

People need to identify how their conscious and unconscious biases were developed. They need to become familiar with the history of social injustice in South Africa and develop a plan to address and overcome their own biases. Most importantly, they must discover how they can each make a difference – and it isn’t by being colour blind.

These are not easy conversations. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But before we can celebrate Human Rights Day, I believe it is important for us to reflect on what human rights really mean for every man, woman and child in South Africa. And then let’s take a good hard look at our society and answer whether those rights are being delivered. Because if they are not, it is up to each of us to start making a change, one mindset and conversation at a time.

Despite the current focus on all the other problems that we face in South Africa, we should never allow the issue of race relations to slip into the abyss of our minds.