Transformation is neither easy nor comfortable

Transformation is about accepting our differences, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, writes Ryland Fisher.

Cape Town - One of the things I realised very early on about the transformation of our country is it is not an easy process and is something most people would prefer not to do, if they had their way.

Transformation is meant to be uncomfortable for everyone and if there is one person who does not feel uncomfortable, then you probably have not transformed enough.

Transformation is about accepting our differences, even if some of these make you feel uncomfortable. Most of us have prejudices, whether they are based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or other identity markers. Transformation provides you with an opportunity to address these prejudices.

I am raising these points in a week during which we have seen protests by learners about hair but, as is often the case, it is not only about hair. It is about much more. It is about whether one should follow the rules made by the people who lived in the house first, as has happened just about everywhere else in society.

Even Parliament and most of corporate South Africa live according to rules made by the people who have been there before. Our first democratically elected MPs had a wonderful opportunity to change things significantly in Parliament when they came to power, but they chose to continue with the same practices that had been used for many decades before, some since South Africa became a union in 1910.

Most practices in corporate South Africa were established by the white people who used to own them exclusively and black people who are now in senior positions have followed suit.

When white schools opened their doors to black children in what are still known in some quarters as Model C schools, they continued the traditions they had practised for decades. They set “standards” which did not take into account the experiences of the black children.

They expected them to act and speak like white people. If they could get them to look like white people too, then so much the better.

A few years ago I tried to get corporates to speak about race and culture as part of adapting to a fast-changing society. I realised very quickly while many corporates talk about transformation, it is not something they embrace without reservation. It is more of chore, something they are forced to do when all they want to do is make money.

I was even told by a company executive once that I should not use the word “race” when speaking to his staff. I should rather talk about “diversity” which, in his opinion, was more acceptable.

I have had several mentors in journalism and, I suppose, in life. One of them was Rory Wilson, the then-managing director of Independent Media in Cape Town who appointed me editor of the Cape Times at a time when South Africa was just beginning to change.

Rory once told me he understood that if he did his job properly - and transformed the company in the way he should - he would be out of a job. The problem with most white people in business is they do not think like Rory. For them transformation is necessary to preserve their privileges.

It is not so much about undoing the wrongs of apartheid and creating opportunities for those who never had opportunities before.

For them it is about accommodating black people in what used to be white spaces. But it is not only white people who feel comfortable with white spaces. There are many black people who buy into the myth that white is better.

I remember a few years ago, when I was a parent at The Grove primary school in Claremont and there was a strike in township schools by teachers belonging to the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). Quite a few Sadtu teachers had placed their children in schools such as The Grove, in the hope or knowledge that teachers at a former white school would probably not go on strike. When I grew up on the Cape Flats, it was not uncommon for family and friends to aspire to be like white people or to accord respect to white people in ways they would never to other “coloured” or black people.

When I was older, I realised at many weddings I had attended over the years, there was always a table for white people “from work”.

This table was placed near the main table and they would be served just after, or sometimes before, the main table.

I have so much confidence in the future of our country based on the actions of young people like these girls. Thank you for making me and others think about what might seem a simple issue, but is something that cuts to the heart of the transformation debate in our society.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 3 September 2016)