Business (dis)unity: South Africa in 3D

Without a pair of 3D glasses, viewing a 3D movie is not a pleasant experience. Similarly, some observers who are viewing the fracturing of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) may be more than a little alarmed.

After all, there are several critical policy issues being discussed in South Africa at the moment that have a direct bearing on economic activity and future prospects for business and foreign investment, and the voice of business needs to be heard.

The debates on nationalisation are one such example. What is happening within organised business in South Africa today is a very similar process to what has occurred elsewhere in the world, as countries journey from discrimination towards true appreciation of diversity.

In her research that was published in 1980, Eileen Morley described the political dynamics that occurred in the United States during workplace integration.  She defines integration as the process whereby people of minority groups try to become members of an organisation that is composed of people who differ from them.

She notes that “Few have realised that the behaviours that tend to occur … have more to do with dominance and subordinacy, with high power and low power, with being highly valued and being little valued, with being an insider and being an outsider, than they have to do with biological skin colour or gender.” (Morley, 1980, p.342).  In other words, it is when we observe the goings on in South African business organisations from the dimensions of power and domination that we are able to make some sense of it.

Morley (1980) describes five stages of integration.

Firstly, there is resistance and rejection, where the dominant group tries to prevent others from entering.  This was South Africa in the era of Apartheid, where people were denied employment opportunities based purely upon their race. Morley (1980) suggests that this resistance by the dominant group is based on two fears.  Firstly there is the fear that the “approaching stranger” will destroy the current status quo in terms of the culture and values held by the group, and secondly that “the dominants will lose face and influence in the eyes of the outside world by associating with them”.

The second stage is isolation, where the stranger is admitted to the system, but isolated within it, almost becoming invisible.  This was the era of token appointments of individuals from designated groups.  The window dressing that characterised early attempts at affirmative action in South Africa that was guided by prejudice, ignorance and fear.  For the individual who was appointed as an affirmative action candidate, isolation was experienced, not only in the form of being cut off from the dominant group, but he or she is also cut off from “their own kind”.  Witness the American “Uncle Tom” or the South African “coconut”. As a result of these experiences, issues of victimisation and self-victimisation frequently need to be resolved.

In the third stage which Morley (1980) calls assimilation, the “intruder” is taken into the dominant group, on condition that they assume the identity of the dominant group.  This was evident in the United States and elsewhere of women wearing business suits; attempting to dress more like men when they entered the boardroom, so as to gain acceptance. Thankfully, we have at least had the Madiba shirt enter the South African boardroom.

Acculturation or parallel systems follow as the fourth stage, where the subordinate group recreates their own system, located either within or parallel to the dominant system, thereby reaffirming the identity of the less powerful group.  Early indications of this in South African society were debates around changing the names of places, the assumption by some individuals of their African names rather than the western names that they were previously known by, and Mbeki’s vision of the African Renaissance. The current fragmentation of organised business is a clear example of the emergence, or re-emergence of a parallel system.

The final stage of Morley’s model is integration, characterised by a true valuing of diversity.  This can only occur when the two groups perceive each other as being equal, which includes seeing the other as equally powerful. Given the results of the most recent report of the Commission for Employment Equity on the status of representation of designated groups in the workplace, this may still be a long way off. What are the implications of this for South African business, and what does responsible leadership entail in such circumstances?

Firstly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that there are power dynamics at work within organised business and that these are valid and legitimate. In much the same way that the architects of current Labour Relations Act acknowledged that there are conflicting interests between management and unions and then set about creating institutions, mechanisms and procedures to normalise, legitimise and manage this conflict; so too, organised business needs to look at creating this kind of institutional arrangement.

Related to this point, in a politically charged situation, responsible organisational leaders distinguish between looking after and advancing their own member’s interests, and undermining the interests of others.  A spectrum of parallel structures all need to be given room to grow.

Secondly, organised business realises that even in the absence of a single organisation representing business, it is crucial to speak with one voice on certain key issues.  It therefore needs to consider how to set up forums that will allow for, and promote robust debate in the pursuit of a unified position on these matters, but without the complexity of simultaneously trying to create a single organisational entity.

Thirdly, a longer term view needs to be taken about business unity.  If a single business organisation is something to aspire to, then it will take a little longer to get there than was originally anticipated, and there may well be several more failed attempts along the way.

So looking at South African business through Morley’s glasses may make our viewing clearer.  We still may not enjoy what we are watching unfold, but at least it will make a little more sense.

References

Morley, E. (1980). Managing Integration.  In Behavioral Science and the Manager’s Role. 2nd Edition.  Edited by W. B. Eddy and W. W. Burke.  San Diego: University Associates.


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