/ 27 April 2023

The invisibility of black professionals


Ralph Ellison, one of America’s finest novelists, wrote about invisibility — that instance when the people with whom you inhabit a geographic space choose not to see you, or when they do, they only see you through their eyes of prejudice.

“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre, and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me,” wrote Ellison in his novel, Invisible Man.

Ellison’s words perfectly sum up how black professionals are made to feel in South Africa, specifically in the private sector. They are invisible, making up the mass at the bottom and getting fewer and fewer as you go up the leadership chain. Of course, as always happens, some have bubbled up to the senior ranks but that shouldn’t blind us to how difficult the corporate world is for most black people.

They feel caught in a sea with lots of undercurrents — on the surface, the environment they inhabit is welcoming, but what goes on beneath the surface is different and ends up frustrating them to no end.

The mistake from a public policy point of view was to assume that legislation is the one and only solution, that it will not only open corporate doors but will result in the creation of environments that are not only welcoming, but nurturing, for black South Africans.

The doors were indeed opened, some even before 1994, but black people have remained, by and large, invisible in corporate South Africa. When they are seen, they are seen as stereotypes of greed and corruption as if these two vices were invented after 1994 and are unique to the African continent. History tells a different story — greed and corruption have, at one point or another, been a common feature in all countries. Of course, some have successfully reduced it to a few cases, while it remains in others as a cancer that’s eating their body politic.

Another mistake was to ignore the role of education. As Stats SA’s 2022 General Household Survey data shows, although the number of black Africans who are enrolled at higher education institutions increased substantially from 60% to almost 74% between 2002 and 2021, the percentage of black Africans aged 18 to 29 who enrolled at higher education institutions lags far behind that of whites and Asians. Just five out of every 100 black Africans aged 18 to 29 were enrolled at higher education institutions in 2021 compared to almost 25 whites and more than 16 Asians. There were six students out of every 100 coloureds at higher education institutions.

This inequality in access to post-high school education creates problems for tomorrow — social, political and economic. What Stats SA data doesn’t show is where these students are registered which, for reasons of this country’s racial history, matters too.

Most, especially outside Gauteng and the Western Cape, as well as in  small towns and rural areas, are stuck in the historically black universities — the “homeland” ones. Most of these institutions remain poorly resourced and badly run, meaning that employers attach the least value to their qualifications — opening another door for justifying the invisibility of black people in corporate South Africa.

The weakening of the policing of affirmative action by the government, combined with this inequality in education, has made it easier for corporate SA to entrench the invisibility of black people.

Education, especially the early foundations and the quality of it overall, matters. And so does one’s background — where one grew up, by which I mean family as well as the neighbourhood. Good education can smooth some of the rough edges that come with poor upbringing — the nurture.

This brings me to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who came up with the theory of capital, arguing that the world had focused solely on one form — capital, as defined by economists. To this, Bourdieu added social and cultural capital, which he argued were equally important.

He described the prevailing view of the world to roulette which “holds the opportunity of winning a lot of money in a short space of time, and therefore changing one’s social status quasi-instantaneously …”

Bourdieu likened this view of how things worked to an imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, “a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties, in which every moment is perfectly independent of the previous one, every soldier has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, and every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can be anything”.

Bourdieu might as well have been talking about South Africa today. Popular conversations within and outside corporate the country deliberately ignore its history, one whose shadow continues to loom large, a development that has been worsened by the government’s failures in recent years.

These discussions create an imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity. They ignore the history of unequal accumulation, heredity and acquired properties. They ignore that most of this country’s population simply didn’t have opportunities to accumulate anything and therefore entered 1994 without heredity.

Bourdieu said that capital has three “fundamental guises”: economic capital, which means all that can easily and immediately be converted into money; cultural capital which, under certain circumstances, can be converted into economic capital and may be institutionalised in the form of educational qualifications and social capital — those connections one accumulates which can, under certain conditions, be turned into economic capital. In some societies, such as the UK, it is institutionalised in the form of title of nobility.

Cultural capital can, Bourdieu said, be acquired to a varying extent “depending on the period, the society, and the social class”. This is a crucial point, particularly for South African circumstances today. It explains why relatively few black people clear the high school hurdle and go on to institutions of higher learning, a point so starkly captured by Stats SA data quoted above.

It also explains why those black people who make it into corporate SA can simply be invisible — whatever their qualifications. As Bourdieu argues, elements of cultural capital are hereditary, which makes their transmission from parents, and grandparents, to the next generation “always heavily disguised, or even invisible”.

Social capital, on the other hand, “is the aggregate of actual and potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition”.

This network, says Bourdieu, provides its members with the backing of collectively owned capital “a credential which entitles them to credit, in the various sense of the word”. These relationships may be socially instituted and guaranteed by one’s family name, social class, the school or university one attended.

Given this backdrop, why would a black child not be easy to make invisible in corporate SA? The black child is without cultural and social capital in the true sense described by Bourdieu. He or she wanders, often by the sheer force of luck, onto corporate SA which hires him or her to make its affirmative action books look good. 

Without networks in the corporate world and having come from a poorly equipped school and having gone to a historically black university — and therefore with very limited cultural capital — the black child has no chance in hell.

The black child might, in Ellison’s words, be of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids, and possesses a mind, but he or she is invisible and will remain so for a long time to come.

Hlengani Mathebula is a Professor at the Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership, a business school for the University of Limpopo. He writes in his personal capacity.