South African business must tackle its deeply rooted prejudice

The white captains of South African business need to change their ways. Shutterstock

South African business’s biggest obstacle may not be government corruption, economic radicalism or skills shortages. It may be deep-rooted race and gender biases in the mainstream economy – which are more damaging because those who hold them do not know that they do.

A pointed example is a court action which cost Mark Lamberti, CEO of motor and logistics company Imperial Holdings, his place on the board of South Africa’s state power utility Eskom.

The North Gauteng High Court found that Imperial, under Lamberti’s leadership, passed over Adila Chowan, an experienced and qualified black woman chartered accountant, for the post of chief financial officer (CFO). They gave it to a white man who, the court found,

had no experience of the motor industry … and little understanding of the Imperial accounting and the complexity of the transactions.

Predictably, Chowan’s professional relationship with the new CFO was not happy, particularly after he made a racially offensive remark about her. She complained and was suspended by the company.

Imperial Holdings CEO Mark Lamberti is in hot water. Martin Rhodes/Business Day

Lamberti, a household name in South African business, was actively involved in Chowan’s case. According to the court record, he told her that she was “a female, employment equity” and was “technically competent”. He added that Imperial “would like to keep her but if she wants to go she must go … she required three to four years to develop her leadership skills.”

The “employment equity” label means she belongs to a group historically discriminated against which, in employment law, is entitled to preference. Chowan was obviously not impressed and lodged a grievance against Lamberti. The matter was escalated to the High Court and Chowan won the case.

Lamberti, in an e-mail to Imperial staff, denied that he is racist or sexist. He says that when he mentioned Chowan’s “employment equity” status, he was saying he would like nothing more than to appoint her. He argued that the court did not find that he harboured race or gender prejudice.

Many have rejected Lamberti’s denial and insisted that he is deeply prejudiced. This may miss the point. It may also, ironically, under-estimate how real a problem prejudice in South African business is.

By focusing on Lamberti’s claimed prejudices, we imply that he is somehow abnormal. The reality may be more serious: that there is nothing particularly prejudiced about Lamberti or Imperial, but that the biases which prevented Chowan becoming CFO and cost her a job are normal in South African business.

Deep-rooted prejudice

Imperial is no obvious bastion of white privilege. Only two of its four executive directors and half its non-executive directors are white; the non-execs include two black women and former ANC cabinet minister Mohammed Valli Moosa. Lamberti is a board member of Business Leadership SA, an association of big business which is considered sympathetic to a majority ruled South Africa.

And yet it was this company and this CEO who, the court found, preferred a less qualified white man to a black woman and sided with the man when she complained about him.

If this can happen at Imperial under Lamberti’s watch, it is likely to happens at many other companies. And Lamberti may well genuinely believe that his words and acts were not products of prejudice – even though they were.

Lamberti saw Chowan as an “employment equity” hire, not a colleague with skills. His mention of her “equity” status suggests that he doubted she was up to the job: mentioning that someone is an “employment equity” employee implies that they are only in the job because of their race and gender.

Whether Lamberti recognises it or not, his use of the term implies that he questioned Chowan’s ability even though he acknowledged that she is “technically competent”. His only credible reason, whether he knows it or not, is that she is neither white nor male.

It is this deep-rooted attitude, which assumes that white men are competent while black people and women must prove they are (and usually fail in the attempt), which prompted Lamberti and his colleagues to pass over Chowan for someone less qualified.

Associating white with merit

The problem is not that Lamberti and Imperial are unusually prejudiced. It is that, in a society in which one group has used the law to dominate another, it is natural to see the dominating group in skilled positions and to assume that they belong there – and to assume that the dominated groups don’t belong.

These assumptions may be so deeply rooted that people hold them without realising that they do. They explain how people and companies who believe themselves to be prejudice-free can exclude black men and women from roles for which their skills equip them.

One excuse for the prejudice shown to Chowan may be that affirmative action, by preferring some people, creates doubt about whether they are competent. Some who make this excuse insist that business executives cannot be prejudiced because they need to maximise their company’s profits by choosing the best people.

But if people are used to associating white men with merit and everyone else with its lack, how do they know who the best people are? The Imperial case shows that if they are left to decide, white men will continue to choose other white men over everyone else and will remain convinced that they are rewarding merit rather than race or gender.

Need for change

So, unless laws and policies insist that employers appoint black people and women, white men will continue to dominate not because they are better than everyone else but because they think they are.

But the case shows too that this is not enough. As long as the attitudes which prompt some to see others as “employment equities” persist, business will exclude talented black people and women.

This is not only unfair: it is costly. It deprives business of the skills of many black people and women. It also entrenches business distrust of government and government distrust of business. And it entrenches a reality in which, throughout society, thinking on the economy is influenced by race – not by what is likely to provide decent livelihoods for all.

In the few years before 1994, many in business leadership were willing to face the racial patterns of the past and seek to change them. Unless businesses revive that quest, South Africa will continue to pay the price of the hidden prejudices the Imperial case reveals.