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Do African Workplaces Need to Be Diverse?

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After seeing a post-Obama cartoon in the Guardian yesterday, I wondered if there was any room or, indeed, need for diversity policies in African workplaces today.

In the West, the majority of countries have laws on their books outlawing discrimination on the grounds of race or gender, and while they are not perfect, they are appreciated by those who have had to resort to them.

In South Africa, by contrast, there is the Black Economic Empowerment (BBE) program. This affirmative action measure was implemented by the post-Apartheid government in an attempt to increase the economic participation of minorities, particularly the black majority. The program may change in the future, as it has not worked as well as hoped, but that remains to be seen.

Do African workplaces need quotas to reflect the demographics of their populations, or should ethnic groups be free to segregate themselves as they see fit? Is there anything to gain or lose from either approach? Of course, in every job, it ought to be the best candidate for the job who is chosen, and one of the failings of the BBE in South Africa is that woefully inadequate people were given responsible positions in an effort to adhere to the law. But if two candidates are equally qualified, is it ever acceptable to discriminate on the grounds of ethnicity?

In Kenya, a phenomenon I have noticed in the past is the “tribal office.” Within a medium-sized company, or within a department, if a vacancy arises and informal recruitment is undertaken, the new hire will be of the same tribe as at least one of the other people they will be working with. Over time, this can lead to the entire office being mono-tribal. I was once in an sales office in Nairobi that may as well have been in Kisumu. The company as a whole was ethnically mixed, but the sales office had been colonised over a number of years to become a Luo stronghold.

For executives, a similar situation occurs when relatives and acquaintances are seeking work. There can be nothing more awkward than picking up the telephone to hear your mother asking if you could find a job in your company for the cousin who you would cross the street to avoid. The borderline alcoholic who dropped out of college overseas and is only back home because there is still a warrant for his arrest over an incident involving a stripper and some strobe lights? Why should you be the one to hire him? Ah, but he’s family, comes the reply.

While the notion of helping out family and kinsfolk is an admirable one, it does not necessarily make good business sense. Corruption  and inefficiency in the civil service and other institutions is a direct cause of such nepotism, where incompetents hired to unsuitable positions will be unlikely to report any wrongdoing because they have split loyalties.

Perhaps a diverse African office is not one where the different races and ethnicities mingle like the introduction to a Benetton advertisement; perhaps a diverse African office is one where race an ethnicity have ceased to be a consideration because there are formal recruitment procedures in place and the staff and management are more concerned with driving the business forward than surrounding themselves with people who make them feel comfortable in their own skin.

[Image by Robin Halp]


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