Education towards violence free communication and conflict solution
2.1 Prof Dr Gordon Mitchell: The invention of the South African rainbow nation. An analysis of religion and the politics of identity in diversity training programmes during the nineties (Nuremberg-Forum, 28 September 2000)
|February 1995, a „Diversity
Workshop“ in the Johannesburg headquarters of a large financial services
company. Tension is evident on the faces of the twenty-eight employees
waiting for the General Manager to formally open this the first of a series
of workshops which will eventually cover the entire staff. From their outward
appearance they are a very diverse group of South Africans. Using the colour-coded
ethnic categories inherited from the Apartheid era it is possible to identify
Blacks, Coloureds, Whites and Indians. Closer investigation would reveal
that, with the exception some recently appointed Black managers, most Blacks
occupy subordinate positions in the company. Coloureds and Indians are
at the lower end of middle management, and Whites are predominant in middle
and senior management. Scrutiny of the names of participants reveals further
subtle hierarchical differences, with English names in Senior Management
and Afrikaans names concentrating themselves in Middle Management.
The participants are not strangers to one another. Many have a shared history going back more than ten years. However, this is the first time that they will be together in an environment intended to promote free and open discussion. In interviews prior to the workshops managers expressed concern about the potential for conflict because employees might use the opportunity to vent their anger about past injustices, and blame the company for the policies of the previous government. For their part, employees were concerned that managers would either dominate the interactions or to subsequently victimise their outspoken critics. There was a general feeling that decades of personal experience of painful and guilty history would have their showdown in this workshop.
A complex and tension-laden process of negotiation lay behind the inception of the Diversity Workshops. Decisions about the contracting of external consultants as well as particular workshop methodology to be adopted were the subjects of widespread discussion in management and worker meetings. In the end it was jointly agreed that a series of confidential interviews with a cross-section of fifty employees would help to identify the issues that should form the basis of the workshop format. A stroke of tactical genius was the decision that a team of small-group facilitators would be drawn from the union leadership and trainers from the Human Resources Department. The involvement of well-known activists contributed greatly to employee perceptions of the legitimacy of the proposed workshops. Management kept a very close track of what was happening, and it was with relief that they heard that during the four-day facilitator´s training workshop the facilitators had come to see their role in terms of a neutral soccer-referee who would ensure that everyone had a fair chance to express their point of view. Senior management was very aware of that the exercise could in fact foster intercultural conflict, but they also recognised that failure to respond to the new political environment entailed even greater risk.
These social dynamics were very similar in other initiatives being taken around the country. The transition in April 1994 from white minority rule to democracy precipitated a shift to a politics of inclusion. Big business had both the concern to be seen to be adapting to the new environment and the resources with which to give it expression. They reacted the soonest and addressed the issue on a much larger scale than other sectors of society. By 1996 almost all the larger companies had introduced workplace training programmes to promote the ideal of cultural diversity. Two years later there were clear signs that the phase was coming to an end as training budgets no longer favoured diversity training.
A variety of diversity training programmes were offered by external consultants, all competing in a new and lucrative Human Resources training market. A survey of what was promised in those courses which won contracts gives an idea of what business was prepared to countenance and which themes remained taboo. Comparison with similar programmes offered by non-governmental organisations reveals some striking differences. For example, issues of gender discrimination or the recent history of racial discrimination were carefully avoided by business. Instead terminology such as „rainbow people“, popularised by politicians and the media, was easily incorporated into the jargon of „synergy“ or „teamwork“.
Much of the training material was borrowed from elsewhere, particularly from Diversity Training programmes developed in the United States. Nevertheless the unique historical context and the adaptations to local cultural understandings gave a particular slant to the South African material. Most workshops were structured in similar ways: a) At the outset objectives and expectations were discussed, and a code of conduct drawn up to provide a „safe environment“. b) The bulk of the time was devoted to a discovery of shared interests and learning to value differences. c) The conclusion to these workshops, which generally lasted two to three days, usually involved the compilation of a „code of conduct“.
If one returns for a moment to the workshop we discussed earlier, it is possible to illustrate the importance that mutual discovery had for participants. In the final round on the third day an employee related an intimacy which had meant a lot to her. The much feared Deputy General Manager, Mr Moolman had been in her discussion group, and he had told of his experience twenty years earlier as a young Afrikaner trying to find his way in an English corporate culture. He described how he would avoid having to speak in English over the telephone by heading for the toilet the moment he heard a telephone ring. This story had a resonance for a young black woman trying to cope in what felt like a foreign culture and battling with feelings of inferiority.
For most employees these workshops, which saw managers and workers sitting down together, were the first opportunity for an intimate encounter across the old apartheid divisions. In the early years there was a wave of popular enthusiasm for such initiatives, even though union leaders throughout maintained a degree of scepticism of management´s objectives. Workshop participants often resorted to concepts such as „trust“, „forgiveness“, „reconciliation“ or „love“ to describe the kind of society which was needed. While this language provided a way for ordinary people to discuss abstract relational concepts, the religious associations of the terminology often functioned to introduce an ethical imperative. These appeals to a higher authority were often part of a statement „In my religion we ....“. One of the most frequent commonalties discovered in the workshops was that, in spite of external differences, people would discover after years of working in the same company that they belonged to the same religious denomination or that they shared similar beliefs.
The overt use of religious symbolism was particularly evident in the way in which African Religion was brought into the discussion of African culture. A good example is the concept African Management pioneered by a group of lecturers at the University of the Witwatersrand´s Business School. They argued that that a new society needs a new ideology and that the appropriate route is a management style which incorporates the best from all the different cultures of South Africa. In this way „western pragmatism“, „northern rationalism“, „eastern holism“ and „southern humanism“ offer an unbeatable combination. In describing „southern humanism“ the content is drawn from African religious concepts such as the communitarian ideal and the power of the spirit world.
Lovemore Mbigi is probably the most influential proponent of an African philosophy of management. He has written profusely on the subject and has made presentations in most large South African corporations. Case studies are drawn from his own career. As a young salesman he had been taught by his grandmother to recognise the association between the roles of the rural hunter and the business entrepreneur. By „releasing the spirit of the hunter” he developed the confidence to be „enterprising, restless, enduring and innovative”. The religious phenomenon of spirit possession is demythologised and utilised as a means of human resources motivation. African religion is treated at such a level of abstraction that even the most conservative of Christians could also find inspiration here.
When he turns to the theme of ubuntu, Lovemore Mbigi is using terminology that is central to African philosophy, and which was already in the early nineties making inroads into management jargon in South Africa. „Umntu ngumuntu ngabantu“ is a Xhosa proverb, translated, „a person is a person through other people”. Participatory leadership, consultation and mutual respect are said to hold the key to managing people in Africa. In the context of an argument for the relevance of incorporating African philosophy into Business philosophy Mbigi points to the crucial importance of a new and inclusive philosophy to occupy what is perceived to be an ideological vacuum. While the new emphasis may have been on African concepts, this was usually within an argument which sought to affirm the value of diversity. This „invented tradition“, resulting from a coalition between capitalist managerial philosophy and African Religion, was eagerly grasped by personnel managers. The 40th Annual Convention of the Institute of Personnel Management at Sun City in October 1996 was promoted by means of a dazzling brochure: Celebrating the South African Soul. Harnessing the Madiba Magic in Organisations. In the background the South African flag is bursting into all the colours of the rainbow, with stars and party balloons. This rainbow imagery is evident in the widely known speech of Madiba, Nelson Mandela, at his presidential inauguration:
„We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
A degree of essentialism characterised these understandings of multiculturalism and diversity. During the days of the struggle against apartheid, „non-racism“ was seen as the only real alternative. However, by the mid nineties this terminology had been replaced by the rhetoric of „diversity“. Increasingly, definitions of culture came to be expressed in essentialist categories, so that people assigned to particular groupings would necessarily exhibit certain innate characteristics. Whereas the revived interest in African Religion fostered static assumptions about African culture, the complex reality of peoples experience often undermined the neat formulations of difference. For most Africans, Christianity and African Religion form part of a single hybridised world-view. In the context of workshop discussion, simplistic categorisations of people were often brought into question. Everyone could think of examples of „northern managers“ being not at all rational, or of Black mangers who were authoritarian and not at all communitarian in their style. Empirical research into the various management styles also illustrated the inaccuracy of ascribing value systems and behaviour patterns to particular groups of managers.
It is therefore important to draw a distinction between the official philosophy of training handbooks and what actually took place in workshops. Abstract intellectual and traditional understandings of culture ran counter to the life experience of many participants living in urban meltingpots where other kinds of differences and commonalties operated. For example, women from different „cultures“ usually had more in common with each other than with any of the categories. The most noticeable „cultural difference“ that emerged in workshop interactions was between management and labour, a factor which could not be reduced by appeals to a shared ubuntu.
Undoubtedly abstract concepts such as ubuntu provided categories with which participants could engage in discussion with fellow employees on subjects of identity. The old ethnic categories of Apartheid Zulu, Xhosa or Venda, were generally taboo subjects in this post-Apartheid environment. For example, in the particular workshop discussed earlier, the facilitator Dr Maake Masango tried to emphasise the value of cultural diversity by referring to his own genesis. From his Zulu mother he had learned the virtues of fearlessness and from his gentle Pedi father, the importance of caring social relationships. He was severely taken to task by black participants for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.
Abstract philosophical and theological definitions of an African identity served as a means of uniting not only with other South Africans but with the people of the African continent as a whole. While the idea that Africans share a common world-view seems to rest on an essentialist argument that would link identity to origin, the appeal to beliefs-systems provides a way of talking about categories of people which goes beyond the racial and the ethnic. For example, categories such as „South African Indian“ or „Malay“ were replaced by the „Hindu community“ or the „Moslem community“.
Before workshops were implemented extravagant promises were often made: there would be tolerance, respect, and even trust as a result of the process. Given these expectations, high levels of disillusionment were inevitable. Nevertheless, evaluations show that some remarkable progress was made. An interview that still remains vividly in my memory took place in the small mining town of Ellisras in north-west, the heartland of white supremacist ideology. The man wore a beard and khaki clothing, the uniform of the far right. He began by talking about the way in which his Christian faith was helping him to cope with the new situation in the country. When he got to the question of Diversity Workshops he said that they were very necessary, and maintained: „We need to get to know each other so that we can believe in each other.“
Many facilitators understood their role as that of enabling participants to get to know each other´s cultures. This was far from being such a straightforward process. Apartheid had left its mark on people who, on the basis of certain ethnic characteristics, would continue to feel themselves to be inherently more or less worthy than others. This „mutilation of the soul“ influenced many of the intercultural exchanges. The reality was not simply difference in language, culture or religion, but that life under apartheid had left behind a number of unresolved emotions. In these circumstances, and given the complexity of human relationships, it is surprising that a year after the workshops participants could describe how their knowledge about the lives of colleagues has increased and how they had learned skills with which to relate to each other.
The striking characteristic of the diversity workshops in the nineties was their optimism. Many people believed that they were part of something new and exciting, and that attitudes could be changed over a few days. Workplace training provided one of the few places in society where they could together come to terms with a new national vision. In spite of some current disillusionment, many people recall those first encounters as a turning point.
As one compares these workshops to similar initiatives elsewhere, for example in the United States, the South African experience is very similar. However, what made the Diversity Workshops of the nineties unique was their historical context. The fledgling nation was in the process of affirming its multicultural identity. Historian Eric Hobsbawm describes such nation building exercises as the „invention of tradition“. Political rhetoric of unity from powerful national icons such as Nelson Mandela and the media provided an ideological context in which workshops took place, and at the same time, because of their extent, these encounters themselves contributed to the invention of the tradition of a rainbow nation. Political observers point to the religious symbolism underlying the self-understanding of the nineties. Nelson Mandela incarcerated for most of his adult life, forgives his former oppressors. Good has triumphed over the evil of apartheid. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is presided over by an Archbishop in purple robes. People feel that they are creating something new. What was happening at a national level was repeated on countless occasions in factories, diamond mines and community centres.
Whereas the rhetoric used in training manuals may have relied on business objectives or on political ideals, in the actual workshops religious language was frequently used by people to express their identity and to describe the kinds of relationships which should characterise the workplace. Did religious symbolism provide a context in which a miracle could take place, or was it all a cheap trick? If one answers the question as an historian one would probably agree that the business sector played its cards very well, but one would also point out the grim alternative of polarisation and violence. If one answers the question as an educator one can agree that these workshops often provided a place where people could come to terms with the past and forge new ideals.
Further, on the concern of big business to ensure a stable workforce at
a time of transition in South Africa, cf. Ann Bernstein, Peter L. Berger
& Bobby Godsell (1998). „Business and democracy. Cohabitation or contradiction“,
in Ann Bernstein & Peter L. Berger (eds). Business and Democracy. Cohabitation
or Contradiction. London & Washington: Pinter, pp. 1-34.