Idols, Springboks and Transformation
South Africa has proven to be a very interesting experiment in transformation over the past 21 years. Transformation has been an integral part of our workplaces over that period and has also found its way into popular culture from the composition of the Springbok rugby team to the winners of SA Idols. In some areas, we have been successful, in others not and in other areas, there may be an argument made that we have gone too far.
Transformation has been the outstanding feature of our changing world over recent centuries. 200 years ago, democracy was a rarity in the world and where practiced, it was often limited to white male land owners. Over the next 100 years, the situation slowly started to change in the Western world and by a century ago, many countries had universal suffrage for adult males. Women’s suffrage movements extended representation to all adults in the First World between 1881 (Isle of Man) and 1944 (France), although in countries like Cyprus (1960), Monaco (1962) and Switzerland (1971), it took much longer. Universal suffrage (independent of race, religion or ethnicity) took longer to spread, but the end of colonialism started the ball rolling after the Second World War. Japan took the step in 1946, followed by India (1950), Greece (1952), the USA in all states (1965), numerous South American, numerous Asian and numerous African countries in the following years. South Africa came in at the back-end, achieving universal suffrage as recently as 1994.
Transformation in the workplace and civil society took much longer to achieve (and is still a work in progress), often requiring changes in legislation to be delivered. Even today, gender equality remains an important talking point in modern democracies like the USA, with the gender pay gap in 2013, still being 18%. Affirmative Action (AA) remains a feature of admission policies to US universities, in Norway at least 40% of board members of listed companies must be women, in India a certain number of seats in government institutions are reserved for people from lower castes, in Germany there are programmes that state that if men and women have equal qualifications, women have to be preferred for the job, in Malaysia, the majority Malay population are favoured through a system called “Ketuanan Melayu” and in Israel a class-based AA policy was introduced for certain universities.
Many people question the appropriateness of AA policies that promote transformation, opting rather for an approach based totally on merit. Some of the arguments made against such policies may be sound, like “government departments become less efficient by excluding people with experience”, “my sports team is weakened by a quota system”, “such policies discriminate against me”, or “I cannot find a job because of AA, despite being qualified”. Other arguments speak to underlying bias or even bigotry, like “why don’t they just work harder”, “if their marks are not high enough, they should not be accepted into university”, “women earn less because they get pregnant and exit the workforce”, or “women are less ambitious than men and therefore not CEO material”.
In my opinion, both sets of arguments are problematic. Globally, we come from a history of bias and bigotry and this is even more extreme in SA. Throughout human history people have been persecuted for their faith, held down because of their social status, kept out of learning institutions, jobs and clubs because of their gender, denied the vote because of their race and discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, race, religion, social standing, disabilities, language and so many more characteristics. The fact that the world is moving towards reduced bias and bigotry does not just make it a better place to live for all, it also allows us to better tap into the talents that people have to offer and allow us to focus on making the world a better place to live (economically, socially, environmentally) instead of wasting time on bickering.
The merit argument is valid and something we should strive towards, but is problematic in an environment where there is not equality of opportunity, where we come from a history of institutionalised discrimination or where bigotry remains rife. By demanding merit only selections into universities, the working world or sports teams in a world of unequal opportunities, we are discriminating against a large proportion of people and excluding talent that could be developed over time.
The merit argument is also often held up by people and institutions that do not truly embrace the concept. It is undeniable that the vast majority of people have affection for people that are similar to them. They are more likely to have friends who speak the same language, who went to the same schools as them, who go to the same place of worship than them. Most men have many more male friends than females and vice versa. Most people will have more friends of the same race, background and social standing. People tend to like other people who are similar to them more than people who are not.
This brings us to my next point. When accepting someone into a school or university, when appointing someone into a job, when choosing who to promote to a senior position, when electing leadership of a club or political party, there is almost always a subjective element to the decision. If left unchecked, most people are likely to choose the person they like more if both candidates have the same qualifications, even if they are not consciously aware of it. People will choose the person they feel more comfortable with ahead of the person they feel less comfortable with.
In the work environment, which is often a boys club, men who get along, socialise together and understand each other are more likely to promote another man to a senior position, if left unchecked. If the majority of parents are English in a dual medium school, they are more likely to elect an English parent to the governing body. The coach of a rugby team (e.g. the Springboks) may be more likely to select players that conform to his understanding of what a good rugby player should look like, e.g. tall and strong and this may exclude many players of colour. Voters on reality singing competitions (e.g. SA Idols) may be more likely to vote for singers that speak like them and look like them. The outcome of such familiarity biases is usually to act as a significant handbrake on transformation. It is therefore necessary, especially in a country with a history of inequality such as SA, to put in place laws and regulations to focus the minds of those in positions of power to avoid familiarity biases and to actively encourage transformation.
On balance, the private sector in SA has done well on the transformation front, although there is more to be done. According to the Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) annual reports of 1999 and 2014, developments have been positive. In 2014, 70% of top management positions were held by whites (down from 87% in 1999), whilst the proportion held by males reduced from 87% to 79% over the same period. Whites held 81% of senior management positions in 1999, which reduced to 59% in 2014 (with the male proportion falling from 80% to 68%). In 1999, 44% of professional qualifications were held by non-whites, increasing to 58% in 2014 (the female increase was more modest to 43% in 2014).
All sectors relating to government have achieved the greatest transformation over the past 20 years. According to the 2014 CEE annual report, more than 75% of national, provincial, local government and state-owned company top and senior management positions were held by non-whites in 2014.
When it comes to popular culture, the results have been more mixed for example SA Idols vs. the Springbok rugby team. SA Idols is an interesting test case for transformation in SA, because it involves the viewing public voting for the winners, albeit not based on universal suffrage (as access to DSTV, the internet, mobile phones and airtime is not universal). It is interesting to note that during the 10 seasons of idols, there have been 5 white winners and 6 non-white winners (joint winners in season 5). It was only in season 8 that a black winner emerged in the guise of Khaya Mthethwa and since then, all winners have been black. In my opinion, the changes in winners of Idols has been the result of a combination of engineering by producers, changes in access to voting and changes in voting patterns. It appears highly likely that the Idols producers and judges made a concerted effort to kick-start the transformation process by increasing the proportion of non-white contestants that found themselves on the ballot. In addition, it is also true that non-white viewership and voters increased over time as more people gained access to DSTV and cell phone costs reduced. However, it is my hope that voting patterns are also starting to change with especially young South Africans focusing less on race when casting their ballots. It will be interesting to see the voting patterns in the current season.
The Springbok rugby team is a sensitive issue at the moment, especially with the World Cup coming up soon. Avid Springbok supporters want the best team possible to be chosen based on merit and they want to see the Springboks win. However, reports of bias as far as team selection goes have left a bad taste in the mouth over recent months. Many commentators feel that not enough has been done under Heyneke Meyer’s tenure to give opportunities to non-white players. An interesting article in September 2014 points to the fact that of the 30 new Springbok caps under Meyer’s tenure (at that time), only 20% (6) were to non-white players, vs. 39% under the tenure of Peter de Villiers and 44% under the tenure of Jake White. Since that article, Meyer has capped a further 6 players of which only one, Nizaam Carr, was non-white. I by no means claim to be a rugby fundi, but in a country where the majority of rugby players are non-white (e.g. c.70% of registered Western Province Clubs cater to non-white players, whilst the rest are mixed) to see such a small proportion of non-white players receive an opportunity at a Springbok level points to either, lack of talent, lack of transformation or familiarity bias. I really hope that post the World Cup, more will be done to achieve the necessary transformation of Springbok rugby to avoid it being pressured to change.
An unintended consequence of a lack of transformation, whether it is in the private sector, government departments, popular culture or sports teams, is that sometimes the scales can tip too far in the opposite direction. Examples are window dressing on SA company boards, fronting when it comes to black economic empowerment (BEE) contracts, overly aggressive quota systems in SA sports teams and qualified individuals being overlooked for positions or promotions, often leading to emigration. There have been many examples of institutions where the balance of power has shifted, like government departments, where appointments are made based on race and party affiliation regardless of qualification. Cadre deployment is not a unique feature of SA and is present in all countries, including developed country democracies. When there is a change in political leadership, the broom often sweeps away not just political appointees, but very often qualified technocrats as well. However, in most developed democracies, there is depth of technocrat management in all political parties, whereas in SA there is arguably not as much depth in the cadres available to the ruling party for appointment.
I hope that we can continue the transformation process in SA, but at the same time I hope that we can do it without it having to be a zero sum game and that we can avoid tipping the scales too far. To avoid the zero sum game scenario, it is vital that we address the education issues in SA and ensure that standards are much higher, that we grow the economy and employment levels and that we avoid not using valuable skills because of their skin colour (or party affiliation), whether it be in the private or public sector. To avoid tipping the scales too far, it is important that the previously advantaged recognise the inequalities in our country, especially of opportunity. We must be open to the transformation process and we should avoid familiarity bias as well as overt and veiled racism. We should do more to give opportunities to previously disadvantaged individuals, especially if they come from difficult situations. We should be empathetic and understanding of backgrounds. At the same time, we should do more to promote improved education, whether it be in our schools or our companies. And we should do what we can to grow our economy and employ more people.
Do you believe in the importance of transformation in SA? Do you think we have made progress? When do you think affirmative action should be abolished, now, 10 years from now? Do you see the transformation in our popular culture, looking at programmes like SA Idols? Do you think more should have been and should be done to transform the Springbok team? Do you think we can win the World Cup? I would love to hear your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!