The responsibility for social transformation of the workplace rests with both the employer and employee. Everyone in the workplace is expected to ceaselessly strive towards and pursue the achievement of equality. The fallacy of equating representivity with achieved equality is exposed when focusing on what really matters: understanding equality as including the promotion of treatment of human beings by human beings as human beings.

In 2014, Dikgang Moseneke, then deputy chief justice, reminded us that:

“A socially inclusive society idealised by the Constitution is a function of a good democratic state, for the one part, and the individual and collective agency of its citizenry, for the other.” [own emphasis]

The goal idealised by the Constitution, which is a socially inclusive society, is the responsibility of every one of us. In the context of the workplace, individual employees are as responsible for transformation as their employers. Social transformation does not start with a theory and most definitely not in the mind of a politician, but also not in that of a philosopher, playwright, or some kind of public speaker. In 2018, justice Chris Jafta agreed with the statement that it is not only up to the law and judges to transform our society, since it is up to each one of us to transform the perceptions that we hold, and the value that we attach to each other, by stating that:

“Regrettably, so far the Constitution has had a limited impact in eliminating racism in our country. Its shortcomings flow from the fact that it does not have the capacity to change human behaviour. There are people who would persist in their racist behaviour regardless of what the Constitution says.” [own emphasis]

In our constitutional democracy, the constitutional text provides for the legal paradigm within which transformation must occur; the history, as context, provides for the reason why transformation is sought and justified; and the ‘real life’ and lived reality, as context, is the object of transformation. The real life experience or lived reality of inequality is the object of transformation.

Inequality is a lived experience in that the human being that is subjected to unequal treatment or unfair discrimination is in fact experiencing such unequal treatment or discrimination. However, inequality is not only experienced through a single or contemporaneous act of unequal treatment or unfair discrimination, since a person can be inhering a state of being systemically disadvantaged. Systemic discrimination (i.e., differentially conferred advantage and subjected disadvantage on the basis of personally held characteristics, such as race, sex, or sexual orientation, over a prolonged period of time) results in systemic disadvantage. Systemic disadvantage leads to and produces a state of being systemically disadvantaged, which is constitutive of, and informs, the ‘real life’ context within which human beings live; that is, their lived reality.

Context - as ‘real life’ and lived reality - includes a workplace that privileges or prefers a certain way of conducing oneself, which may include one’s way of working, expressing oneself, one’s understanding of humour, etc. This particular ‘way’ could resonate more naturally with some people. A workplace can be circumspect, and certain workplaces are intolerant, of difference. It is up to each employee as well as the employer to eliminate this circumspection and intolerance, which can only be faithfully and seriously pursued through each employee reconceiving each other and the value that is attached to such conception. Social transformation - which includes transformation of the other - starts and ends in the mind of each South African, but specifically, with the conception that each one of us holds of each other and, based on such conception, the manner in which one treats the other.

It is up to an employer to provide the space within which no ‘way’ of conducting oneself is more readily accepted than another but it is up to each employee not to be circumspect or intolerant of a certain ‘way’ of conducting oneself.

Social transformation is, therefore, posited upon transforming reality beyond mere appointment of previously disadvantaged individuals. In other words, social transformation rejects equality as representivity by requiring transformation of the consciousness of the human being. Window-dressing can no longer pass as achieved equality and only unconditional recognition, accommodation, and celebration of the difference between each other can transform the workplace, and bring about an attempt at achieving equality, across difference.

One question that remains to be answered is: what it would entail to reconceive each other. This is quite simple, but far-reaching beyond measure, and merely requires one to desist from being blinded by socially constructed prejudice. Treat another as a human being for the reason of him or her being a human being, as opposed to for example, taking a black female to a client meeting for only the meeting or appointing previously disadvantaged people only to comply with an employment equity plan. Be mindfully and respectfully interested in the difference of another and promote recognition, accommodation, and - where appropriate – the celebration of difference.

From social transformation, especially the lack thereof, ascends an innate need to affirm the very character of our society as one based on tolerance (acceptance) and mutual respect, since if the process of transformation had been completed no such affirmation would have had been called for.

Justice emeritus Albie Sachs stated that the “… test of tolerance is not how one finds space for people with whom, and practices with which, one feels comfortable, but how one accommodates the expression of what is discomfiting”.

Transformation is then not so much a controversial and politicized issue but rather a journey and becomes less controversial and political when we focus on what truly matters; namely, treatment by human beings of human beings as human beings.

By Dr. JJ van der Walt, Associate, Johannesburg
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