SUNDAY TIMES - It's simple: prejudice blocks transformation
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Sunday Times Opinion By Ron Derby, 2017-05-14 00:00:00.0

It's simple: prejudice blocks transformation

Unfortunately, most of us have some or other preconceived opinion about people not based on any reason or actual experience. Perhaps it's human nature that we fall back on our individual prejudices to help us make sense of things we simply don't understand. And maybe it helps to deal with deep-seated insecurities.

In a homogenous society such as Japan's, where everyone speaks the same language, share the same value system and increasingly the same age, these prejudices aren't as damaging to society as in a country like ours.

In South Africa, a diverse and historically divided country, our prejudices cannot be left unchecked. To be driven by them is a recipe for disaster and this is especially true of those in the C-Suite, and more urgently among managers below that rung in the large businesses that still dominate the corporate landscape.

It poses the greatest risk to the long-term sustainability of this young nation. That's the only way I can read this week's depressing statistics on the transformational efforts of corporate South Africa to date. In the country's workspaces at least the white male is not such an "endangered species".

Earlier this year, John Allan, chairman of Tesco, said he and eight of his fellow directors were on the endangered list. Astounding, that he should feel insecure in a European world shifting to the right.

"For a thousand years men have got most ... jobs. The pendulum has swung very significantly the other way," he told an audience a day before International Women's Day. "If you are female and from an ethnic background, you are in an extremely propitious period."

Whenever the question of slow transformation here is raised, the first response from defensive executives and apologists is to point at poor education and levels of experience. That the majority hasn't yet cut it to take a leading role in the economy is a standard answer.

It's clear that the legacy of Bantu education remains, and that the government's fiddling hasn't been as successful as we would have wished. So it's a valid enough point. But it's not the full picture.

In the early Thabo Mbeki years, BEE deals were spewing out of the JSE news reel. Apart from politicians who suddenly found a nose for business, or who had n't joined the struggle to be poor, there was evidence of a growing pool of black talent . Some were young and perhaps championed too soon, leading to ballooning salaries, but they were there.

The era was typified by that rather patronising term "black diamonds". Towards its end , a global recession put paid to this progress. Corporate SA, which had enjoyed an unmatched rise in valuations in the years before the crisis, shifted focus to capital preservation .

The first victim of this shift was transformation. Cost- cutting measures zeroed in on the most expensive of staffers - the "black diamonds". The little experience the "rising stars" were gaining was simply cut short. Transformation regressed as programmes meant to bring in the previously disadvantaged suddenly had a cost premium.

A popular narrative around greedy BEE businessmen took hold, along with the term "clever blacks". I'd argue that this narrative fed into the prejudices of white males that black men and women were just an entitled lot in search of gold they hadn't earned.

Such preconceived and incorrect ideas have kept and still keep transformation on the back foot. It's a crisis that leads only to poor and emotive political choices.

derbyr@sundaytimes.co.za or follow Ron on twitter @ronderby