South Africa has always been defined by its prejudice – it’s perfectly understandable given the centuries of colonisation and then the decades of legislated segregation known as apartheid.
We live with those bitter fruits to this day, inheriting these traits. No one is immune. One day you wake up and you realise you are infested with this virus of prejudice, and that your perceptions are different across race, class and gender. You move from denialism into excruciating painful awareness and then the choice dawns before you – you can continue to deny it or you can make the choice to eradicate it.
I grew up in Britain, the product of a middle-class background and modest privilege. I was appalled and saddened to discover later in life the dark parts of the true heritage that was mine; of evils in the system of colonialism that had spawned and underpinned the empire – and that this same empire had invented the loathed concentration camp system that the Nazis would perfect and take to new demonic levels 40 years later.
The terrible thing about racism or classism is that it distorts your view about other people because you have this inherent superiority. These filters that are part of your upbringing and they prevent you from seeing people as they are. One of the best countries to have sidestepped this issue, in my opinion, is New Zealand. Perhaps it’s as a result of the country having been settled by Calvinist working-class Scots fleeing the loathed British class system. My experience, when I lived in New Zealand for a while, was that it doesn’t matter who or what you are, only that you can look your fellow human being in the eye irrespective of who they are.
People can change, they can overcome learned prejudice, but to do so, you need compassion and insight. Insight means seeing yourself for who you are. Once you’ve seen that, you can’t unsee it. Then comes compassion, the ability to use what you’ve seen to ensure to become something other than that person and to understand why you are changing, whether it is just to salve your guilt or to truly make a contribution towards a better society.
When you escape the prison of racism, or sexism or classism, you see your fellow human being in a new light. We have a fantastic opportunity to do that right here in South Africa at the moment. It is not just the new leadership in place, there’s a new spirit, one that is so different from the past imbued with this romantic idealism of the liberation struggle and the hope and opportunity that it offered. Now, our filters are starting to lift and there’s a real understanding of the reality of the situation, that we are racist, sexist and cleaved by class.
We have to ask ourselves, what is it that we are trying to do. What should your business do, or in my case, the business school do? I don’t think it’s about Black Economic Empowerment or Women’s Rights per se, but rather removing privilege from the equation and instead creating a level playing field based on people’s characters and capabilities. How could anyone not want to educate the mass population of South Africa for the benefit of everyone? It’s not about redressing the imbalances of the past, but rather sheer implacable logic of creating a society where everyone is productive.
We have an extraordinary opportunity in South Africa to make this massive difference to a lot of human beings, human beings who still look at each other through these conceptual and programmed filters of race, culture and history and because of that find it difficult to see each other. As an educator spending time seeing people grow, I have been extremely privileged to see the extraordinary reinforcement of the potential of human nature and capabilities. I see people who have borrowed money to come here or worked two jobs driven by the determination to better themselves and their families – and they do.
And I wonder, why can’t we do this on a larger scale? The gift that we have in this country is human capability, not mineral resources. We can’t dig things up and sell them forever, we’ll only go bankrupt. Our only role models can’t just be a handful of senior positions and powerful, what we need instead is creativity and skills, the ability to do things. We need to educate people but in institutions where learning is revered, sacrosanct and there is no tolerance for disruption, where the teachers are passionate and the best at what they do. And we need to scale that up across the country.
We need to build creative industries, help diversity the economy and give people faith in themselves. Most of all, we need to inculcate the message that having a job might give you an income, but it won’t liberate you. It’s like a trust fund kid, the wealth doesn’t last beyond two generations, being wealthy is not the same as being competitive.
Being competitive means having capabilities that are differentially better, that you are constantly upskilling yourself. This is a lifetime’s work. The good news is that we have enormously intelligent people emerging in this country and I’m convinced if we could educate more we have an extraordinary opportunity. I see people all the time who are ready for the challenge of working hard to make a difference to their own lives and he lives of those around them. They’re not special, they’re normal, they’re representative of the average. What’s not average is how they’ve got themselves to this point.
It’s time to lose the prisms through which we view the world and see people for who they are and in doing so discover our own true self.
As President Cyril Ramaphosa said when he opened parliament this year, quoting the immortal Hugh Masekela; “Thuma mina, send me, I wanna lend a hand”. It doesn’t matter if we fail, it doesn’t matter if we are imperfect and flawed, we must make a difference, we must make a contribution because if we don’t we won’t have set up the possibility for success for those that follow.