The truth is often that acknowledging heritage is limited to staff playing dress-up and taking plates of eats to work one day a year. But it takes more than a bite of a mopani worm and a traditional dance to understand Venda culture.
In fact, most times heritage is an impediment to a company culture – unless you belong to the same class, creed and, yes, colour. I have seen it happen to myself and I have seen it happen to incredible candidates who showed up to interviews. One was a CA. She was brilliant. She’d won awards in her profession, she had passed her master’s with flying colours and overseen the successful turnaround of several failing companies.
I knew she would be a wonderful fit, but then she arrived in a burqa to her interview, a scarf covering her head as befitted her devout faith. Afterwards I got a call asking why I hadn’t wanted the board beforehand. The candidate didn’t get the job, because the board couldn’t see what I could – they weren’t prepared to look beyond the veil.
Once, I was gifted some really beautiful kente cloth from Ghana. I fell so in love with it, that I had a lovely fitted dress made, which I then paired with my usual tailored black blazer. I was shocked when I went to the client to be asked, point blank, if I was still able to do the assignment.
“Are you going back to your roots?” she asked.
I asked her what she meant. My dress had obviously offended her sensitivities about what was acceptable in the workplace. I had to explain to her that I’d had the dress made to the same patterns as my other dresses because I was in love with the fabric and the colours – and that it had nothing to do with my culture.
Cultural practices can and do clash with corporate cultures. These days you can wear an isiphandla, the bangle made from the skin of an animal slaughtered in your honour, in most company environments. The same isn’t true though for people who wish to publicly follow ancestral belief systems or who openly choose traditional healing options over conventional medical treatments. But it would be a mistake to think that the only heritage that is accepted and encouraged in companies is the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) variant.
The dominant culture or heritage in a company invariably reflects the dominant personal culture of its leadership. I have been in boardrooms, where I have realised I have grievously offended directors by addressing them directly, rather than by the honorifics that their age and seniority would have demanded in a village setting. Then I have compounded it by not meekly waiting my turn to speak in terms of my age, but rather openly and assertively taking part in the debate because of the expertise I have brought to the table.
The reality in our country with its fractured past and often tortured present is that heritage can be – and often is - weaponised as another tool to discriminate and to exclude staff from the C-suite. The ‘culture’ can be religion, customs, diet, anything that is different from the prevailing norm.
The truth is that in far too many environments, the whole person that you are is not welcome at work. Instead the company only wants the part of you that brings the revenue, toes the line and doesn’t disturb the status quo. The prevailing attitude is that your heritage is something that you can return home to at the end of the day, but certainly not take it to work because it disturbs the order of things.
Nelson Mandela famously said: “It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.”
Far too many C-suites do not cherish the freedom of expression and belonging which that democracy gifted us. The saddest part is that many business leaders are totally unaware that they are being doing this in the first place.
The challenge this Heritage Day is to make every day a Heritage Day; a day in which we can bring the full us to the table and exercise the rights we have not to be discriminated against because of our gender, our race, our class, our creed our colour and, even our beliefs. If we are good enough to be picked for the effect we can have on the bottom line, we are good enough to wear our isiphandlas, speak our languages, ditch the ties and the pencil skirts.
Make every day a Mopani Worm Day – or a Braai Day, it doesn’t matter, just make sure your workplace has space for every employee and every part of that employee. That’s what being a South African is all about actually. Diverse people unite, or as the /Xam motto beneath our coat of arms tells us: !ke e: /xarra //ke.
Make a difference this 24 September, not just for one day, but for every day. Teach people about who you are and learn who they are – and together create a culture of respecting everyone’s heritage in the process.