What is Diversity?

March 25, 2020

Develop an understanding of others and learn to treat them as they would like to be treated and not necessarily as you would like to be treated, for what works for you may not work for them. Ask when not sure.

In a diverse and multi-cultural society like South Africa, should you treat others as you would like to be treated or should you learn to treat them as they would like to be treated? Would what works for you also work for them? These and other questions are answered through the lessons in this book, lessons that teach us about ourselves and others and about the crucial principles required to handle diversity dynamics effectively.

These principles of diversity are universal whereas diversity dynamics are local and at the level of practical detail. In order to understand and master diversity dynamics, one first has to possess a good grasp of the principles involved. A sufficient grasp of these value-based principles would make it easier, not easy, for one to be able to handle effectively the subtle nuances when dealing with diverse individuals and to better understand issues involving diversity.

South Africa is an extremely diverse society, and this diversity would need to be understood, appreciated, valued, utilised, celebrated, respected, and well managed in order to minimise disadvantages and maximise advantages of diversity on individuals, organisations and the broader society, for the present and the future. Since nobody is perfect when it comes to diversity in South Africa today, the immediate urgency would need to be to unlearn the old, negative and destructive attitudes and behaviour and to learn, teach, nurture, and live new and constructive ones, as individuals first and then as collectives, in order to impact the collective whole for our own survival and success.

Over the last fifteen years I have had the honour and privilege of being at the centre of constructive diversity dialogue processes with tens of thousands of delegates in my workshops, facilitating educational dialogue amongst South Africans of every age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic status, geographic location, as well as people of foreign nationality living and working in the country, in various private, multinational and public sector organisations. The exposure and experience for me and the wonderful delegates who participated freely and enthusiastically in these sessions have been exciting, fulfilling and filled with hope on the one hand, but on the other hand, deeply sad, disturbing, and potentially dangerous, if we let it be.

These outstanding human beings have taught me and learned from me and others in these sessions many valuable life lessons. The main lesson I have learned is that if you engage with diverse people and all people with good intention meaningfully, respectfully, honestly, and objectively, people would be more inclined to share their views and experiences openly, but they would also find themselves pausing from only listening to themselves and start listening to others, thereby beginning to empathise with others, and others in turn would start doing the same. The end result would be that the individuals would begin to understand themselves, other people and issues better, and the impact they might be having on others without their consciousness. This insight has led to perceptible and authentic change in behaviour.

The lessons that you would learn from this book are broad, deep, profound, and practical, as they had been developed from true life stories of real experiences of diverse individuals, experiences gained from within their immediate and other social and organisational circles, as well as from their often flawed diversity socialisation processes that have been characterised mostly by limited meaningful exposure to others as well as deep-seated learned prejudice towards others. These lessons range from learning to talk about others in their absence as though they were present, since this might be closer to the truth rather than the negative stereotypical generalisations that amuse and entertain us about them when discussing them in their absence. The lessons also teach us that he who generalises generally lies, because no two individuals, even if they were raised in the same family, would be the same.

Since all South Africans are products of their environments, and since these environments that produced them were also different, it should therefore not be uncommon to find that there are real differences between individuals and groups. The lessons then further teach us that even though we had been taught through-out our upbringing that we should treat others as we would like to be treated, we must also learn, especially in a diverse environment, to treat others as they would like to be treated and not necessarily the way we would like to be treated or to treat them, for what works for us may not work for others. We also learn that other people’s ways are correct for them, and that their ways are not necessarily strange, but that we might be strangers to their ways.

The lessons also expose a sad lack of and at times negative understanding of the country’s laws governing diversity, transformation and fair treatment of individuals. Some of the lessons act as admonishment to companies by citing real incidents of casual homophobia, sexism, and blatant racial discrimination, and highlighting the liability of employers in such incidents.

We also learn that in the final analysis, the change that we want to see will have to start with the individual, and that individual is you. The lessons also ask a basic fundamental question: does it really matter if one was of a particular gender, race, lifestyle preference, religion, or disability status? What should really matter should be how fair and respectful we are to one another, and whether we afford full recognition and appreciation of the humanity of us all in our beautiful diverse selves.

The lessons are varied and numerous. They have been carefully selected from the responses from diverse people as areas of required and useful knowledge. An overwhelming majority that I have interacted with have pleaded for all South Africans to be granted an opportunity like they had been granted by their employers to learn about and respect differences, since they traced their baggage, whether it was two kilograms or a few tons of it, to their socialising agents from childhood all the way to the present via family, friends and the media. Their plea was that this ignorance and negativity should and can be stopped for the sake of all of us.

I hope that I have listened enough to the hopes of South Africans and their opportunities and challenges with diversity and have responded in a humble but proudly South African spirit and manner. I hope you would also learn and respond in your own unique way to advance your growth and to contribute meaningfully towards a stable and peaceful co-existence. And I am confident that the book would trigger useful constructive educational conversations amongst South Africans talking and learning about themselves and others, thereby contributing to peace and stability in the manner that Pope Benedict XVI put it when he said: “Peace begins with a look of respect that recognises in another man’s face a person, regardless of the color of his skin, nationality, language or religion.”

Enjoy the read, live out and share these lessons of life. Value diversity.