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Thought Thursdays
Deal with what’s wrong without destroying what’s good

As 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. 

We should 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. 

Now, 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?

The 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. 

The 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.

The 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.

We 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.

Arnold Smit.jpg
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.

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