Cultural diversity does not imply enforcing a melting pot or values, but allowing individuals to add their values to the workplace, writes Mabila Mathebula.
Dickens and Dickens (1991) acknowledge the initial importance of affirmative action in business in these terms: “Something had to be done to initially open doors that had to been closed and create a critical mass of non-white males in organisations.
“Since most of these doors have been opened, there is a real need to advance beyond focusing on blacks, women, and other minority groups sequentially to focusing on the skills and talents of all American cultures.”
This statement was made twenty years ago by black management consultants in their book, The Black Manager: Making It in the Corporate World. These were the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act which was passed in 1964 in the United States of America.
I would have squirmed sixteen years ago if someone said to me that: “Affirmative action is almost a dead issue. This is the age of diversity. We must become less concerned with the packaging of the resource and more concerned with the contents of the package”.
Yet this was a warning that was sounded already in 1991 by Floyd and Jacqueline Dickens. They came up with a concept called added value; those additional assets that individuals acquire as a result of belonging to a group and apply to some task or some environment.
These additional assets are the group’s unique experiences, values, behaviour, skills, and talents that have been learned and traditionally handed down from generation to generation.
Dickens and Dickens argue that different groups need to be treated in ways that pull the best from them, not the worst. They dismissed the melting pot concept as misleading and counterproductive to diversity management, because people are told assimilate.
Forced integration, in their view, does not work well. “In a melting pot, flavours lose their identity; the strongest flavour prevails… Our differences, not our commonalities, are what make us ‘special”.
Churches, however rigorous their dogmas, are increasingly accommodating the spiritual impulses of members to practice the rituals they feel a need for.
African Christianity is already very different from the charismatic brand that John Lake and others brought from the USA, which itself is different from the reformation that Luther and others drew from the medieval Catholic church.
Just as living inspiration and inspired scripture sustains religions, we need not re-write laws or rules to sustain health and safety culture. We need only to allow people to express their compliance in their own ways, and to find the compromises to allow them to do so together.
In response to an article on Sheqafrica.com by Shane Lishman, on the culture of employees in the Middle East who work extra hours to receive Sheq training, I agree that we have to put the concept of added value to practice.
South Africans add different cultural values
Below are some universal cultural ‘added values’ that may seem like stereotypes, but serve to illustrate the Dickens’ concept, and begs the question of what our values, and value are as South Africans.
The Irish generally have a sense of humour. They also tend to teach neighbourliness involvement and a sense of obligation to neighbours.
The English are known for their ‘stiff upper lip’, perseverance against all odds. The words of Winston Churchill which he spoke in 1945 to high school children are worth recalling: “Never give in, never, never, never, never! In nothing great or small; large or petty. Never give in except to conviction of honour and good sense”. Despite Winston’s personal faults, he articulated national values.
The Germans are hardworking people and delight in precision.
The Blacks, because of a tradition of having limited resources with which to work, have learned how to be exceptionally good at creating something out of almost nothing, or ‘making a plan’.
The Jewish have learned to love debate and the knowledge gained from questioning and seeking answers.
The Dutch are frugal. They hate waste and value saving and investing their money.
Afrikaners are known for values that also appear in Afrikaans poetry, which centres around three themes; God, family, and the environment. They have a deep sense of loyalty and they are good at environmental management.
Xhosas are very strong-willed. Once a decision is made, you can count on them to see it through – for themselves and the organisation.
Shangaans are linguists – capable of speaking many languages. These are the people you need in communication or to man your call centre.
Vendas keep confidence. They would not let organisational secrets out, much like Swiss. These are the people you need in strategic positions because they could be trusted with confidential information.
Zulus are highly procedural people and believe in following rules, individually and collectively. These are people you need in shaping the organisational policies as well as security management.
Tswanas are like the Dutch, they are frugal. These are people who would accomplish more with a shoestring budget.
Indians are like Mexicans, they have a culture of building interpersonal relationships. They are natural in sales and have the skill of persuasion.
Coloureds are who are good at trades such as carpentry and plumbing. They also value practical skills and self-worth in others.
Culture is contagious
South African culture could be an export product, We should nurture the values to be had from our own heritage, and need not look to foreign examples. It is regrettable that South Africans tend to copy everything American.
The danger with cribbing is that one is also inclined to copy faults and transplant them into home soil, with unintended consequences.
What need we of America? I owed my first visit to the USA to affirmative action. When white employees went overseas, they had to take black counterparts along.
Where Abraham Lincoln signed the Declaration of Independence, I stood in awe at the opulence side by side with abject poverty in the land of supposed milk and honey. The USA may have failed at a task easier than our task as South Africans.
They continue to learn from the South African dream that Nelson Mandela exported to the world.
• Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator. He writes on health and safety cultural issues in his private capacity.
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