a nation we have arrived at a difficult place. We do not differ about
the social challenges we face, but we do differ on what they mean for
different constituencies. The daily news is filled with accounts of
inequality, unemployment, racism, corruption and poor education. People
hold different views about their root causes and how they might best be
solved. People also differ on who has legitimacy to speak about such
issues and who not.
Without diminishing the significance of the
complexity and interconnectedness of many of the issues that I have
mentioned, racism, at the moment, stands out above the rest. We have
reached a point of dangerous polarisation on this matter of humanity and
principle that we should rather be unified about. If we are to free
ourselves from the debilitating clutches of racism, we need to
understand our motives much better.
never accept racism in any form, but we also cannot paint the
conversations about it in terms of right versus wrong. The matter is
quite frequently also about right versus right. We step into the
conversation from different vantage points and different historical
experiences. While there can be no justification whatsoever for racism
in any form, we quite often need to face that the moral high ground is
not even when black and white people speak about their different
experiences and views on it.
We cannot afford
to put our tender social fabric at even greater risk by shouting our
self-justifications out more loudly, or by digging our ideological
trenches deeper. Neither shall we make progress by denying the
importance of our historical and social fault lines and leave it to
others to sort out on our behalf. We’ll have to work through our divides
by means of constructive engagement, honouring the dignity of those
with whom we seem to differ and working together for both common ground
and common good.
In Difficult Conversations, a
book published in 1999 as part of the Harvard Negotiation Project, the
authors distinguish three types of conversations. Firstly, they say,
there is the “what happened conversation”. We so often realise that we
differ about the facts, but instead of exploring the views and truths of
others, we rather fight for the acceptance of our version of things.
Secondly, there is the “feelings conversation” in which we recognise the
emotional charge between and within us. However, instead of
acknowledging and owning up to the discomfort, we apportion the negative
emotions to the other party and, consequently, rob the conversation of
personal honesty and interpersonal connectivity. Lastly, there is the
“identity conversation” which leads to our feeling threatened and,
consequently, we try to find protection in a group similar to ourselves
while labelling the others as the enemy.
think about how we hear ourselves as South Africans speak at the moment
about racism. It doesn’t take much to find ourselves in an ‘us and them’
conversation, a blame-shifting exercise and a colour divider. There is
simply no rational justification for it, and yet this is where we seem
to keep on ending up. Progress in these conversations must inevitably
start with suspending our preconceived judgements, acknowledging our
fears, biases and anxieties and accepting the dignity of others and
their right to be heard.
What can we do about faulty predispositions concerning race and where do we start?
most obvious place to start is at home. We’ll have to make a special
priority of breaking down any stereotyping regarding black or white
people. As adults or parents, we simply need to steer away from negative
language about those who are different from us, or from making
premature judgements on the experiences and pain of others. We’ll have
to make it a matter of principle and discipline to speak respectfully
about others and teach our children and youth to do the same.
second place at our disposal to work on non-racialism, is the
workplace. Workplaces offer convening spaces where people can learn how
to accept racial and cultural differences as an asset and have
conversations about the challenges that threaten our ability to live and
work together in harmony. Perhaps the one thing that businesses do not
get enough credit for is how they have helped South Africans thus far to
deal with difference and embrace diversity.
most difficult places to cultivate the harmony that we seek seem to be
our communities and social circles. These so easily become enclaves of
colour, culture and religion, where we allow ourselves to embrace a
uniform collective identity, which does not readily welcome difference.
This often goes together with speaking about ‘the other’ in ways that do
not honour their humanity and dignity. Here the same principle and
discipline that I have highlighted for the home will have to apply.
are at a sensitive juncture in our South African journey. We are at a
place where we must deal with what is wrong without destroying what is
good. Racism is wrong, and if we deal with it by making broad
colour-based brush strokes in order to set up black versus white, we are
playing with fire. I see too many South Africans who get along well,
enjoying camaraderie, fellowship and collegiality, to believe that
racism will have the last word on our collective future. However, if we
want harmony to trump division all the way, we’ll have to work much
harder at increasing it.
While we confront and work on what is wrong, we need to celebrate and do more of what is right.
Professor Arnold Smit
is the head of the University of Stellenbosch Business School Social
Impact and holds an associate professorship in Business in Society. His
fields of expertise and interest are responsible leadership, corporate
sustainability and responsibility and organisational and social change.