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Series: What is transformation? Transformation As Genuine Dialogue 2006-09-13
Nhlanhla Mkhize

*Associate professor and deputy head, School of Psychology, University of Kwazulu-Natal


In this article, I reflect briefly on issues which, in my opinion, are relevant to the transformation project in South Africa. The focus is on the predicament of blacks in professional or managerial positions, previously not associated with black bodies. I posit the view that, unless South Africans of all hues are recognized as fully-fledged personalities, capable or articulating their points of view from the position of equality, transformation will remain a desirable but elusive goal in South Africa. Since the article is meant to engender open and critical dialogue on matters raised herein, I have been to the point in calling a spade a spade, and not “a garden instrument.”


Race and Attributions of Competence and Incompetence


In some circles, there is an unspoken assumption that black appointees, being “affirmative action” candidates, are not capable or deserving of their positions. This occurs despite the black incumbents’ professional qualifications. It is not far-fetched to hypothesize that this is because race has been a major determinant of professional mobility in South Africa. On the whole, blacks have played the subservient roles as gardeners, messengers, domestics, and the like. It is therefore possible that, in interpersonal and even inter-group encounters, an unconscious racialized process kicks in: little tends to be expected of blacks; the few that are in positions of responsibility being seen as notable exceptions. To complicate matters, even some black clients, owing to a deeply-seated mental handicap lamented by Biko amongst others, find it difficult to accept that fellow blacks can deal adequately with their concerns. Personally, I have lost count of the number of times I have been mistaken for a cleaner by visitors at work, and this includes black visitors. This unspoken assumption alone contributes towards a stressful and alienating working environment. A relic of our sad past, this situation needs to be addressed urgently, lest we all remain prisoners of the past. Managers of transformation need to initiate dialogue to address manifestations of this tendency head-on.


The Right to Speak; the Right to be heard!


For some companies or organizations, transformation is equated with the number of black employees. While transformation does involve the numbers game, it is not reducible to it. In equating transformation with numbers, one runs the risk of window-dressing. This dimension of transformation is concerned with the depth of change. In organizational circles, this is referred to as first order change. Changes of the first order type, also known as shallow changes, involve messing around a bit with the furniture (more black faces where previously there were fewer), without intervening at all with the deeply-embedded assumptions, cultures and psyches of the organization.  


How do shallow changes manifest themselves?  There are numerous examples of this phenomenon. A so-called affirmative action incumbent may be tolerated provided he/she does not mess around with the dominant psyche(s) of the organization. It is like an unwritten psychological contract of some sort. In other words, the incumbent is rendered (or acquiesces to processes that render him/her) voiceless with respect to the most critical aspects of organizational functioning. While it has become common practice to have “representative” structures to carry out organizational mandates (e.g. having a black person or a woman in a committee), this practice is fruitless if the target person is there merely to be seen, not heard. Blacks and women serving in such structures often feel frustrated because it is not uncommon that their contributions are ignored.  If one considers that speaking is not only a process by which we convey ideas from one head to other heads, but also an important aspect of selfhood (positive self-affirmation), nothing could be more humiliating than an act of non-recognition.


While in the examples cited above the native is denied a voice altogether, in some instances he/she is allowed to express an opinion, provided it is voiced via a non-native voice or gets attenuated in some way. In this case, someone becomes a spokesperson for the black voice or tries to qualify.  Why the black voice is not listened too, in and of itself, is course for concern.  Why should the black voice be couched in another, historically privileged voice, before it can gain an audience? This consistent denial of their voices has frustrated many a black person. A qualification is in order here: I am not advocating that certain positions should be accepted simply because they are articulated by blacks; rather, the idea of dialogue presupposes the equality of parties taking part in the conversation and hence all voices should be heard. Dialogue recognises the Other, with whom one can agree or disagree. Anything other than that is pseudo-dialogue. I fear that transformation efforts in most organizations have become replete with pseudo-dialogue aimed at appeasing the state. To the extent that blacks are prepared and willing to be co-opted into humiliating, pseudo-dialogical encounters where their opinions are not taken seriously and as long as they are willing to be tolerated because they cause no trouble, we have failed the transformation project.  


Transformation: Understanding/Engaging with the Other’s Lifeworld


While reducing transformation problems to communication failures (mis-understanding) is tantamount to ideological suicide – the type of suicide often committed by diversity consultants – willingness to engage with the lifeworld of the Other, and this involves being conversant in the Other’s language and communicative practices, remains critical. Historically, the burden of coming to terms with, and even adapting to, the multiple lifeworlds comprising our diversity as a nation, has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the (previously) disenfranchised. Thus, while it was taken for-granted that blacks had to learn English and or Afrikaans for educational and work purposes, the same did not apply to the white population. In the black population, fluency in European languages (mainly English) became an end in itself: It was considered to be a manifestation of superior intellect (and was lucratively rewarded).


To this day and despite constitutional guarantees, African languages remain invisible in public and scholarly discourse. One would perhaps understand this if the majority of South African were conversant in European languages in question (noting that persuasive arguments in favour of African languages could be launched from other angles); this is not so. My experience teaching at a tertiary institution for more than 10 years has led me to the conclusion that at the entry level, the majority of black South African learners have not mastered English well enough to use it as an instrument of thought (i.e. to manipulate and convey abstract scientific ideas), and this does not necessarily exclude former Model C graduands.  Most black learners are accustomed to code-switching in their day-to-day conversations. This mode of communication is also utilized by black teachers at all levels of schooling. The bottom line is, there is a hiatus between the day-to-day lifeworld of the black learner and the education environment, the medium of instruction (and whatever social and cultural practices are embedded in it) contributing immensely to this hiatus. Despite compelling evidence from psychological studies indicating the superiority of mother tongue instruction especially in the early formative years, this issue has not received the attention it deserves in the free South Africa. The question of the relationship between transformation and language is of course not limited to the educational sphere: It pervades all aspects of out lives, including the economy and public service. Herewith an anecdotal example: More than once I’ve observed instances where a black client was asked to step aside in a long queue because the bank teller was unable to communicate with her; this in a bank where the majority of clients were visibly black Africans. It took quite a while for the interpreter, a cleaner, to arrive to her rescue!   Transformation, therefore, should pay attention to the question of language, including the power dynamics embedded in the speaking of a language. 


Let me now turn to the question of understanding the Other’s communicative practices (as opposed to understanding language per se).  Again, apartheid dealt us a severe blow here. The geographic separation of black and white communities meant that there were little or no opportunities to interact informally (let alone on an equal basis), even in situations where the said communities were living within spitting distance of each other. After 12 years of democracy, spatial barriers remain entrenched, albeit at a psychological level. Black incursions into “white space” have not been matched by white movement into “black space.”  However, it is not my intention to talk about race, space and some version of the contact hypothesis here: I am introducing this issue so as to advance the view that despite the democratic dispensation, whites’ opportunities to immerse themselves fully into the lifeworld of the black person remain as rare as prior to the post-apartheid era. This means that opportunities to learn about black communicative practices (or experiences) in black people’s own terms and turf are limited, thus hampering meaningful transformation.


A few examples will suffice to illustrate the importance of learning about the Other’s communicative practices and ways of life.  In my early days as an intern psychologist attached to the University, a number of black children from English medium schools were referred to the Psychology Centre because they were “too quiet”, “not responsive in class” or “unassertive” (failing to look the teacher directly in the eye). Also, a number of black students would come to the Centre because “white students were talking incessantly without pause in class” thus denying the former an opportunity to air their points of view. In both cases, if the teacher or tutor/lecturer were aware of culture-based communicative practices, they would have structured the learning environment in a way that benefits all learners. For example, in mainstream western culture, communication is conceived as an abstract, context-free activity: it is an expression of the individuality of the speaker. On the other hand, communication in African settings is largely a responsive activity.  It is dependent on cues that a mature speaker is expected to read, as they emerge in the conversational space/field created by the very act of communication. To be able to understand the meaning of what is being said, one has to be fully competent in grasping the context in which the conversation takes place, and this entails the social intelligence to pay full attention to the relationship and its dynamics. In other words, communication is high on context-dependence. It is for this reason that conversations in many African cultures tend to be longer and more speculative. During the dialogue that ensues, one needs to be as polite so as not to do unnecessary harm to the relationship between oneself and the other, even if one disagrees. The target during the conversation is not the individual per se, but the very vibrant atmosphere, or context, created by the fact that the interlocutors are engaged in a conversation. Communication proceeds as if there was a third party to the conversation, even if there are only two interlocutors. This ensures that the relationship between oneself and the other is not damaged. Failure to attend to context-dependent cues during the conversation could lead to misattributions or problems such as the ones cited above. In cross-cultural communicative encounters, the patient, speculative approach which from the perspective of the African is meant to preserve the relationship, could be interpreted as indecision or even outright stupidity (not having something to say!).


For this and many reasons beyond the scope of this short article, transformation should involve willingness and an effort by all parties to immerse themselves into the lifeworld of the other as equals. It is not a process by which one group adapts or assimilates to others’ ways of life. It involves a transformation of our modes of being in the world with others. Let the genuine dialogue begin. 


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