In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests around the world, founder and CEO of Uoma Beauty Sharon Chuter demanded that the beauty industry #PullUpOrShutUp by sharing their gender and racial demographics to reveal the number of Black employees they have at corporate and executive levels. Bringing this closer to our shores, it is without doubt that the inclusion and representation of Black people in corporate South Africa continues to be an urgent matter that needs to be addressed. So, before a company affirms that Black lives matter, let's talk about what that actually means.
There is no transformation and inclusion without justice
Matters of social justice, inclusion and representation are business matters. It is no longer acceptable for the private sector to be silent and ignorant when it comes to the consistently shifting social and political landscape. It is imperative for business to engage, reflect and take meaningful action on issues pertaining to global politics. These shifts speak to the very essence of transformation work where the business sector is required to take seriously discrimination, bias and unbalanced power dynamics across organisational levels. Lending support to the hashtags through public statements and supporting BLM activists and organisations is no longer sufficient.
Companies have the additional responsibility to prioritise Black lives within their business operations and act to justly transform the business sector across South Africa.
The issue has never been about diversity. People have always existed in difference of experiences, positionality, power and social capital. Corporate South Africa’s task is two-fold: an urgent response to addressing power imbalances within companies and a meaningful understanding of how Black employees exist in multitudinous ways which inform how they navigate workplace dynamics and structures.
Black lives matter always and in all ways
To affirm the importance of Black lives, companies have to reflect on existing leadership structures and the lack of representation of Black women in those spaces. Beyond inclusion, Black people often step into executive positions and have to endure hostile environments which shove their ideas, innovations and presence to the margins. These spaces further marginalise them through silence and maintaining barriers which make it difficult for upcoming Black staff to aspire to these positions of seniority and leadership.
Black lives matter includes the prioritisation of safety for Black LGBTQIAP+ employees and ensuring that companies have sufficient supportive policies and protective mechanisms. It means a company which posits care for its employees as a core value, must consistently demonstrate tangible support and recognition for Black employees within these communities.
Black lives matter includes closing the pay gap. It means wages and salaries that translate to a sustainable livelihood for support staff, interns, graduates, junior- and mid-level employees. And in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it requires companies to guard against the disproportional and negative impact this will have on Black employees.
Marginalisation where Blackness and disability intersects
The lives of Black employees living with disabilities matter and need to be reflected beyond non-discrimination policies. Taking intersectionality seriously requires business to understand the layered experiences of employees in accessing and growing within companies. Access means more than infrastructural changes – it invests in the upward mobility of employees by reimagining different ways of working. Companies need to undergo the necessary changes to further understand the marginalisation experienced by people where their Blackness and disability intersects.
Black lives matter in company hiring and procurement processes. The presence of Black staff should not be confined to adhering to BEE requirements. Companies need to interrogate procurement processes which alienate and exclude Black-owned and -led businesses. All these actions require the private sector to undergo urgent transformation which prioritises Black expertise and experiences in business through meaningful approaches geared towards progression and innovations within the sector.
Do away with dehumanising, marginalising systems
Corporate South Africa must pull up – both with the numbers and the actions needed to accelerate transformation across the sector. The assertion of #BlackLivesMatter through branding and marketing is not meant to be a self-aggrandising exercise for corporates where Black employees continue to be marginalised. To say Black lives matter, business must act and create cultures that are conducive to the growth and inclusion of Black people within their organisations. Black lives matter serves as a global rallying call that demands all spheres of society to take seriously the expansiveness of Black people and the need to do away with dehumanising and marginalising systems. And that includes the workplace.