"Coloured professionals are struggling to transcend apartheid-imposed labels of identity and this has impacted negatively on them in the workplace". File picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA) Archives
New research from the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) shows that coloured professionals are struggling to transcend apartheid-imposed labels of identity and that this has impacted negatively on them in the workplace - making it harder for them to succeed at senior management level.

This is backed up by the Employment Equity Commission report for 2017/18. An annual snapshot of the country’s workforce, the report lays bare the glacial progress corporate South Africa has made in the past 20 years towards transformation.

The failure of the law to effect change suggests there may be other factors at play and the GSB research suggests a crisis of identity among coloured people is at the heart of the issue.

Bar the rigorous research conducted by Dr Ruben Richards and written up in Bastaards or Humans: The Unspoken Heritage of Coloured People, few have attempted to unpack the complexity of coloured identity in South Africa, let alone the workplace.

Ever since the propagation of Black Consciousness ideology in the 1970s, the notion of a coloured identity has been a contentious issue among the middle class, educated and politically astute.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the focus has been on creating a collective national identity, but this appears to have resulted in the further marginalisation of the coloured community along with a dissonance in ideological and cultural beliefs.

The research explored the notion of double consciousness in the coloured community - and a diminished sense of belonging - a concept discussed in Professor Mohamed Adhikari’s Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community.

Of particular interest were the perceptions of coloured identity and how this affected work experiences.

Common responses from respondents included the sense of “being watched” by superiors and having to work harder than peers to contradict stereotypes.

Many respondents who attained leadership positions reportedly became alienated from others in their community by preferring to assimilate into the dominant economic white group at the workplace.

More concerning, there was evidence that they withheld support from other coloured professionals and engaged in unhealthy levels of competitiveness - what we termed, the "Cape cobra syndrome".

Once in top positions, several individuals described themselves as being powerless to truly effect change. They found themselves not having access to the right white networks in the private sector and similarly in the public sector, and also did not have access to the right networks in the black African government sector.

Historically, the intrinsic nature of colouredness is based on the ideology of racial hybridity and the misconception that it resulted from interbreeding between white and black people.

This brought the stigma of racial inferiority and illegitimacy, which is still found in contemporary work environments.

Perhaps the most worrying finding of the GSB research was the lack of support and mentoring within the coloured professional community. Conventional wisdom holds that discrimination against minority groups can be redressed by placing more people in positions of power to help mentor and be role models to juniors.

But, in understanding the power dynamics at play and potential access, participants in the study chose cross-race mentors - and did not seek out other coloured protégés once in positions of power.

They displayed characteristics of self-distancing, manifesting in individuals seeing themselves as unique in their ambition and commitment, and different to others in their group.

There was furthermore a denial of discrimination, resulting in opposition to actions aimed at redressing inequalities and improving conditions.

Kurt April

Together with "workplace belonging insecurity", the study found an alarming prevalence of negative stereotypes in the workplace, as well as self-deprecation.

The status quo in workplaces, particularly as it relates to coloured professionals, clearly needs to shift.

The study suggests that if corporate South Africa wants to change, it has to redesign transformation and employment equity policies so that they are properly inclusive of coloured people and make provision for equal participation under the definition of regionally appropriate, designated groups.

In addition, changing perceptions around coloured identity may help to move the thinking beyond the stigmatising notion of “mixed race” identity and towards seeing cultural identities comprising detailed bodies of knowledge, specific cultural practices, memories, rituals and modes of being.

As Associate Professor Zimitri Erasmus from the University of the Witwatersrand puts it: “We can’t deny the meanings attached to skin colour. But there is more than one way to be coloured and more than one way to be black.”

* Kurt April is an Endowed Professor and Allan Gray Chair of Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion at the UCT Graduate School of Business and co-author of Diasporic Double Consciousness, Créolite and Identity of Coloured Professionals in South Africa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus