Trump, Brexit and #FeesMustFall provide valuable lessons for Diversity and Inclusion

What can we learn from them?


Richard Lehnerdt

If the vitriolic retorting on social media is a social barometer of our current consciousness in South Africa, fuelled by our politicians and mainstream media, we have regressed since 1994, when the world let out a collective gasp of what we had pulled off as a nation.

Or have we? If we look at Brexit and the Trump victory in the USA, many around the world asked; "how could so many people on so many levels get it this so wrong?"

Sitting beneath the surface is a gamut of fear, mistrust and lost hope that is deeply connected to racism, misogyny, bigotry, homophobia and xenophobia. The west (U.K. & U.S.A.) has now finally voiced their true feelings, rather than hiding behind political correctness and having polite conversations and tip-toeing around issues.

For many years, we too have toed the line - voices were not heard or were being quickly silenced. And then the class of 2015 raised their hands in South Africa and started #FeesMustFall. They spoke out against the grain of what was expected in this "normalised" post-apartheid South Africa, without the help of any structures (Political Parties). They promised to bring education to its knees, unless the government provided free education. This movement is not a cause on its own, but rather a symptom of the current society in which we live; with its underlying frustration, fear and anger.

Are companies safe from this frustration, fear and anger? It would be arrogant on their behalf to think that because they are not involved in politics that have some immunity to this, as they are "responsible for keeping the economy going" or "keeping the lights on". What happens when the vitriolic anger spills over into the company and starts spreading and changing the company's ethos? What if those "wage negotiations" draw out longer than expected?

We have set up so many structures to push us (inadvertently) further away from a holistic diversity and inclusion (D&I) culture: BB-BEE codes and practices, skewed skills levies, EE committees which are, at face value, ensuring the corporation is seen to be doing the right thing. So many companies are playing the numbers game with complete and utter disregard for actual D&I, based on prejudiced fear and loss: fear of losing power, fear of losing status, fear of losing rewards, fear of the unknown, fear of how we will engage with people, who have different opinions and ways of behaving to us. There are so many qualified engineers, CA's or lawyers hidden away in the back of the office, hired to make up the quotas in order to keep the norm.

So why is it that diversity and inclusion has moved at a snail's’ pace in the last 15 years in South Africa despite the many legislative requirements, laws, reviews, targets, programmes etc.? If a CEO really wanted to develop and implement a positive, cohesive and integrated D&I strategy as a business imperative then they would make this a key focus in their organisational strategy. They would ensure that their structures accommodated this, their leader’s positioned and facilitated it, resources were secured, their culture was inclusive and that their strategy was tied to measures so that accountability was in place. How true does the slogan of "#WhiteMonopolyCapitalism" ring now? Why are key-decision making and executive positions still protected?

Ending discrimination and driving inclusion requires more than a training programme it requires and organisational culture change. After all, other organisational change imperatives such as driving cost efficiencies, implementing safety measures, investing in research and development and advancing technology and automation etc. have all moved on in leaps and bounds, because the organisation has chosen to focus on these business activities, based on a perceived ROI measurement. The same energy, effort and resources that organisations give to these change imperatives should be given to the D&I agenda. Accepting difference and being inclusive is not a privilege, it is a basic human right born out of  justice and equality.

We have 2 years before our next national election. All signs are pointing to the failing liberation movement that is now governing, a President who has lost the respect of people and is being ridiculed, a negative growth forecast and massive unemployment. This leaves us with exciting times ahead, and unfortunately, given the history of South Africa, the race card will be trumped (excuse the poor attempt at a pun) again and again in the foreseeable future.

Looking at lessons learnt from the Trump victory and Brexit can guide us in the right direction. We now have the opportunity to encourage dialogue and have truthful conversations. If we made an effort to understand our current differences rather than attack both new and old differences, we would be more amenable to valuing each other. We did it in 1994, and we can certainly do it again. Let's discuss the "our parents sold us out in 1994" vs the  "you voted for a government that's not delivering" and "BB-BEE has failed us".  By embracing our rich diversity and creating an inclusive culture as one (Ubuntu), we can cease unrest in South Africa, and avoid hurting both the perpetrators and the victims. It is time to facilitate the spirit of your organisation through the dynamism that is diversity. We must reflect intrinsically and extrinsically, because there is value in interdependence, interconnectedness and intersectionality. It is time to rebuild our sense of community. It's time to rebuild the economy and the country.

We need to understand the importance of building a sense of community through securing ‘engagement’ from each other. Case in point - Farage and Trump (and quite a few political figures in RSA) played to win at all costs, by appealing to their followers with passion and inspiration; presenting them with the ‘what’s in it for me’ element which fostered motivation and alignment; and, encouraged and galvanised followers to be actively involved in their campaigns. This should be the crux of any D&I campaign.

Where the #FeesMustFall campaign topped both Farage and Trump, is in disruption. Whilst disrupting the status quo is not always a bad thing, by providing a platform for confrontation and challenging inertia, this has often been misused in South Africa. Rather than trying to engage and create new and innovative ways of thinking and being, most causes loose their degree of ethics and morals along the way. Once this happens, the original cause loses its appeal. Thus engaging on a D&I initiative needs to done whole-heartedly and over a period of time.

It is time to introspectively acknowledge that we are all connected. Not only within the company we work for, but in a community and in a country. Why do we have keep pushing D&I aside in order to hide our fear and hide behind polite conversations and political correctness? Perhaps it is time to look at the greater good of what is needed in the company we work for, in our community and in our country. Perhaps if we start listening, understanding and including, we can avoid a Brexit, Trump or, even worse, another Marikana.

Forbes Insights tell us that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.”
It is time for companies to start playing an active role in our society, in the communities they affect, and the country as a whole. Diversity and inclusion is overdue! Start the conversation today!

If you are wanting to see how your company fares on D&I, take our survey and, if there are negative results which need addressing, contact us and we can assist you with a D&I program to suit your specific needs. Use the link below:

On completion of the survey, you will immediately be able to see which areas require attention.