South Africa: racism and language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 23 13:55:47 UTC 2007

Unfair play in the workplace

Tumi Makgetla: NEWS ANALYSIS  22 March 2007 11:59

Racism in the workplace continues to dog corporate South Africa, according
to union leaders and black professionals. Yet few individuals who
experience racism try to tackle it, preferring to avoid the stress by
finding a new job. Experts say that where individuals do seek legal
action, racial discrimination can be extremely difficult to prove.
Moreover, the equality courts have played almost no role in combating
racism in a corporate environment. The Human Rights Commission (HRC)
reported to Parliament late last year that the majority of cases heard in
the equality courts concerned racial discrimination and disability
matters. Yet HRC commissioner Karthy Govender said he could only think of
one or two cases that were concerned with racism in the workplace.

He said the court would only address matters outside the jurisdiction of
the labour court or the CCMA. About 50% of the grievances that banking
union Sasbo receives from its members concern racial discrimination, said
Sasbo's deputy general secretary Ben Venter. Grievances range from not
distributing empowerment shares to Chinese workers to derogatory language
use and language policy. The union organises about 60% to 70% of the
employees at the four major banks.

Yet Venter said that racism was subtle in the financial sector, compared
with industries such as mining, where it might be more explicit. "It's
very difficult to say that it's motivated by racial discrimination," he
said. Issues of racial discrimination become more difficult at regional or
branch level, where senior management depends on a local manager's
representation of events. Venter's perception is that racial
discrimination was a bigger issue in the early 1990s, because people from
previously disadvantaged backgrounds have greatly increased their
participation in the industry since then.

Wits University law professor Tshepo Mosikatsana said a complaint can have
a racial dimension depending on how it is characterised. "It is very
difficult to prove the racial dimension, so most people prefer to go the
route of enforcing rules," he said. Venter commented that about 80% of the
cases they deal with concern not following company procedure. "The
workplace is fraught with racism," said Mosikatsana. He added that black
upward mobility has been interpreted as encroaching on white territory and
not as a levelling of the playing field, which results in serious
problems. He said that often discrimination is subliminal, although it is
perceptible. For example, someone might find that their comments are
consistently ignored during meetings but it could be difficult to prove
that this is because of racism.

"People don't have the same levels of endurance," he said, explaining that
people often leave a company in response to racism. It is especially
difficult for junior staff to combat racism because they lack the clout or
knowledge of the company to deal with it as effectively as more senior
staff. "[Bonga Bangani's] letter really has brought to the fore the whole
issue of racism in the workplace," said Sello Moloko, the president of the
Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals. "Racism and
sexism and other forms of prejudice are quite prevalent in the workplace."
He said that in some cases people who try to use internal procedures to
deal with racism have been pushed out of the company. "People lose
confidence in the human resources desk of these companies as they tend to
toe the management line," he said.

"What I find very alarming about corporate South Africa is the
indifference of executive management toward racist behaviour, and the
tendency to deny it when it comes up," he said. Senior people often want
to "kill the issue" of racism in an aggressive manner, which might make it
difficult for junior people to raise it as a problem. This could have the
effect of disillusioning "starry-eyed youngsters" who are excited about
the companies they work for. Moloko says strong mechanisms are necessary
to combat racism. This includes having strong black people in the
workplace and structures that can be tested by independent outsiders. This
gives young black people the opportunity to "prove or disprove"


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