Ending racism in business is an economic imperative

This article first appeared under the title This is how business owners can face their white privilege on BusinessLive.co.za


A white person in South Africa writing about racism is like a criminal talking to the victim about integrity. As a white South African, born during the apartheid years, I question my right to even discuss the matter. I also struggle with the guilt of not having done more to challenge the status quo during the apartheid years, and worry if I will ever earn the credibility of black people.


Yet we simply cannot afford not to talk about racism in this country. As much as we continuously try to sweep our past away, the workplace today is still symptomatic of the racial inequalities that existed  four decades ago when I launched my first business, K-Mart, two weeks after the Soweto uprisings in 1976. The ongoing effects of racial polarisation on our society, businesses and economy are devastating.


The economic toll of systemic racism


South Africa is one of the most complex and troubled nations on earth. Regardless of our attempts over the last 26 years to redress our racially divisive history, we have spectacularly failed to effectively unshackle the deeply etched polarisation that has devastated the nation’s ability to become an inclusive provider for all its people.


In his book, I Write What I Like, Steve Biko wrote, “As long as blacks are suffering from 300 years of systemic oppression, denigration and derision, they will be useless as co-architects of a normal society where man is nothing else but man for his own sake.”


Systemic racism lies at the root of everything negative in our society. Years of racial discrimination, many of which were inscribed by law, have resulted in a debilitating psyche of blame and accusation, of revenge and recrimination, and of guilt and shame. This recipe can only result in a race to the bottom.


As businesses, how can we effectively operate in this environment? How do we sell our products, promote our brands, support our employees and serve our customers? Capitalism can be an amazing tool to uplift communities and promote economic freedom, but it can also be used to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Rugged individualism has widened the gap between the wealthy and the largely unemployed masses.  This will leave us with businesses that have no customers and a society that is simmering beneath the surface.


If we take this a step further, corruption and greed have debilitated our nation, and no-one is being held accountable. This is not a new South African ill. The apartheid government stole an entire country away from black people. Under the current government, billions have been lost to state capture. And we have seen neither remorse, nor accountability from either government.


Where does this leave us as business owners and business leaders? We cannot control our government’s actions, but we can control our own. Businesses have an opportunity to change the course of our country.


When we finally realise that we should place people before profit and human lives before our own narrow selfish interests, then we can rebuild an inclusive nation for the benefit of all. As business leaders, we have a moral and financial obligation to uplift our people and our economy and it starts with unlearning racial prejudice and unconscious bias. What I am proposing is not easy. But it is an economic imperative.


8 Lessons I have learned as a white entrepreneur


  1. Face your unconscious bias. Bias is part and parcel of being human. The more we think we are immune to it, the greater the likelihood that our biases will be invisible or unconscious to us. People who claim to be unbiased demonstrate a distinct lack of self-awareness. Once we start facing our unconscious biases, we can shape and change them.


  1. Understand systemic racism. Poverty, unemployment, crime, equal opportunity education, family structures… the list goes on. There is hardly a problem in South Africa that is not touched by race. We need to rediscover our true history and the crimes against humanity that were committed in the name of white superiority. It will be uncomfortable, but it’s a critical first step in finding real solutions that redress past wrongs.


  1. Accept white privilege. White privilege does not mean that all whites have it easy and have never struggled. It simply means that if you are white in this country, your race will most certainly have positively influenced your life in some way. White privilege is a dull, grinding complacency that has as its default position, a belief that white is the norm and black is the other. Whites need to be more aware of their privilege and of the circumstances that have created the foundation of inequality.


  1. People before profits. As we stumble through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are alerted to the massive inequalities in our society and to the devastating effects of rugged individualism and cancerous greed. We can no longer focus on the narrow capitalist objectives of shareholder returns above all else. As long as we treat people like cost burdens, our businesses will remain devoid of a sense of belonging, motivation and commitment. The future of business must have a significantly more humane face.


  1. Redress past wrongs. Those that argue that BEE is unfair reverse racism, please understand that redress (not revenge) is an imperative for the rebuilding of our nation. We cannot move forward until we have fixed the past. If nothing changes, I foresee a bleak future for South Africa in which racial and economic inequalities eventually lead to revolution and destruction.


  1. Change can only happen in a place of discomfort. For white people, it is time to expose ourselves to the reality of the lives of the majority of black people in our country and to start the uncomfortable conversations about racism.


  1. South Africa requires a new breed of culture-driven business leaders. Culture-driven leaders have developed the skills to build a culture of service in a polarised workforce. These are leaders who earn the moral authority to lead by building the trust and respect of employees. They create a sense of belonging for all people, regardless of race. These businesses champion inclusion and diversity, not as a value on the wall, but woven into the fabric of the business.


  1. The future starts now. Just when you think that everything is finished, that will be the beginning. The beginning of a new world order where humanity and inclusion take priority over individual greed and wealth accumulation. Now is the time to start making a meaningful difference. Now is the time to recover from our past and heal a nation divided.

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