MOST Ethno-Net publication: Africa at Crossroads


Africa Forty Years Later - Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts
PAAA / APA, 2001

Ethnicity and conflict paradigm shifts within the South African public sector environment

Sitembele Wiseman Vatala
PO Box 1600 UPE
RSA 6000

The South African public sector has by and large characterized by multiculturalism, because the state is multi-plural in respect to language, culture, traditions, norms and values of society. The heterogeneous nature of the South African society can be classified into two theories or assumptions. Firstly, the pre democratic system of government was fundamentally based on racial segregationist policies. And secondly the post 1994 general elections created a climate conducive for nation building and reconciliation among various ethnic groups. South Africa is a state that has been deliberately divided along racial lines. And prior 1994 all race elections, ethnic conflicts both in society and in government was the order of the day, particularly in the former “Black homelands” “Self-governing states. Furthermore, the vestiges of apartheid and separate development are still prevalent to all structures of governance. Structures of governance should not been seen in isolation from the ethnic groups who occupy certain positions in government. One wonders what strategies should be employed to remedy the existing xenophobia among the diverse ethnic groups within the South African public sector. It is this backdrop that encouraged the writer to share few ideas and suggestions of how to cope with ethnicity and conflict in the public sector. Because if ethnicity and conflict continue to engulf the South African public sector, this unequivocally will impact negatively to sustainable delivery of services to customers. The paper will seek to interrogate and search for pragmatic “solutions” as an attempt to address the profound assumptions suggested in the opening sentence of this abstract.

Ethnicity in South Africa is deeply rooted in the former self-governing and independent states, and in some Afrikaner dominated areas. It is going to be extremely difficult to for the new political discourse to eradicate ethnicity and racism among the eleven-ethnicity groups, because the mindset and geographical demarcation has not completely changed. Legislative measures were promulgated after 1994 general elections, as an attempt to dismantle the racial divide in residential areas. The ethnic and racial divide is based on the notion that human beings are different therefore they should be treated differently. The behaviour of each person within society in seeking recognition and identity is not different from the behaviour of identity groups such as ethnic, minorities and nations, because all these groups have a common dimension. But cultural values do change over time and they can be institutionally adapted. The research paper is based on some empirical but more importantly on theoretical interpretation of the situation as it pervades the South African public sector. The views expressed in this paper are in my personal not as an employee of the university and should not be linked to the mission statement of the University of Port Elizabeth in any way.

Ethnicity and conflict defined
There are different interpretations and definitions of ethnicity, however I would rather settle this clear conceptual definition viz. ethnic is a social group, which aspire common nationality, features, cultural tradition, race, nationality and language. In a nutshell ethnicity is an identifiable group of people differentiated from the main population of a state by racial or cultural background (see The Concise: Oxford Dictionary, 1991: 401). Furthermore, ethnic conflict is not confined to dramatic international events taking place among competing states and cultures. Rather some levels of ethnic conflict seems to occur wherever human beings interact with one another either at social, political or economic level. Ethnic conflict is sometimes not understood within the context of the public sector, this would needs a great deal for flexible strategies to help in understanding, modeling and evaluation of conflict situations. In actual fact ethnic conflict analysis methods are meant to capture the key components of conflicts and their application should be independent (Hipel and Kilgour, 1993). From the preceding definition of ethnicity it could be deduced that, the environment political, social or economical influences the characteristics that define ethnicity. Furthermore the group of people who advocate ethnic identity would by and large separation and protect their unique interests sometime at the expense of other groups, in order to claim their and enhance self-determination. In the final analysis ethnicity is a very diverse no simply definition could suffice to capture all its multifaceted factors. On the other hand conflict is defined as “a contentious process of interpersonal or inter-group interaction that takes place within a larger social context.” Thus inter-group conflicts are embedded in a political framework, based on social and life as well as psychological. Ostensible, finding an acceptable solution will not be attained without taking into cognizance power imbalances and inequitable social and economic relations (Jeong, 1999: 3). Ethnic and conflict are viewed in most cases as negative or positive depending on the frame of reference, for those who are in authority are challenged by those who want to protect their ethnic interests. And those ruling elite tries by all means to defend the aspiration of the ruling party. Conflict is a means by which a movement toward creating cooperative relationships between contending parties, because it is a natural and inevitable. Ethnic conflict in the public sector must be optimally managed and accommodated by trained and knowledgeable experts who are aware of the reasons, consequences and implications of ethnic conflict. Furthermore ethnic conflict is further necessitated by legislative measures that promote departmentalization of the state into various ethnic groupings. These groups will take an advantage of the law at their disposal and demand separate boundaries that will help them to promote their commonage. In addition ethnic conflict can be artificial and visible in terms of structural arrangements. What seems more relevant and useful than classification of groups is rather to focus on the analysis of their interactions, which will enrich and cement their relations (Nieuwmeijer and du Toit, 1994: 464-465). Ethnic and conflict can be interrogated from two essential perspectives namely, primordial and contingency views. The former entails the cultural origin of a social group is inevitable and fallible and it cannot be changed because people were born in a unique social background. It is a concept that must be understood as absolute and necessary. Furthermore, primordial can be defined to mean, “first created or developed”, it can also mean “primeval” which suggests that has persisted from the beginning. It is a natural order of things, which is unfortunately used to benefit certain ethnic and race groups to justify a powerful ideological excuse to oppress their counterparts. Primordial is based on the notion that it is ineffable that is, it cannot be expressed in words or uttered. The latter concept simply means that the ethnic is socially mobilized in order to consolidate its ethnic identity because of deliberate segregationist policies. Consolidation and mobilization are therefore an appropriate corrective that focus on the role of political and economic forces that in the past excluded particular ethnic groups. In addition, contingency model is flexible because it allows to be influenced by the changing paradigms, national and international trends. The danger of these two assumptions is that, if they are not adequately addressed might result to potential ethnic conflicts, which might escalate into a civil war. Ethnic conflict is not a new phenomenon in the South African context it was deliberately created. The country right now is “sitting on a time bomb” because racial groups that were oppressed in the past are continuously mobilizing themselves, because the constitution has provided them with an amicable opportunity. The ruling elite must act swiftly and be proactive in dealing with ethnic conflict particularly in the workplace (Eller and Coughlan, 1993: 190 & 196).

Workplace race relations
Inter-group relation in South Africa is a topical issue that deserves serious attention. The tension between various ethnic groups emanates from historical departmentalization of society in terms of socio-economic, political and cultural backgrounds. The endemic of racial division requires an inclusive engagement of all relevant stakeholders, as the former president of the United States once said “constructive engagement with the South African government”. Workplace race relations is utmost important in South Africa because it is where different groups get together for a common purpose. Government of the day is the largest employer and large corporations subsequently they constitute multiethnic and diverse multicultural labor force. Henceforth the interdependence of different groups in the workplace can be used as cohesion to “cement” and build new norms and values for sound mutual race relations the employees. To enhance good work relations in the public sector, the must be a change of attitude and behavior of both the management and employees. Perhaps race relations must be treated with sensitivity and passion (Nieuwmeijer and du Toit, 1994:193). From a practical experience African people in South Africa are treated in a manner that is unacceptable, because if you go to any public domain you get a poor service but a white person is better preferred. With emphasis a white person does not do this to another white person but by a black person. Of course this has to do with the inferiority complex inculcated to the minds of the African people. What make things worse is the language that one speaks determines to a larger extent whether you’ll get the service before someone who speaks the language of the attendant. African people who work in these public domains should ask themselves how could they enhance effective service delivery notwithstanding racial and cultural backgrounds. But it is not suggested that public employees must be color and race black, because apartheid policies were not neutral. Therefore to try to address the imbalances of legacy of the past the government of the day cannot use race neutral policies. Ethnicity and conflict in the public sector is not only related to race and color but most importantly to gender stereotypes. The dawn of a new democratic government in South Africa brought exciting and problematic challenges so far as race and ethnic relations were concerned. Such challenges cannot be taken out of context of what is happening and what has happened in terms of transformation process of the South African society. These challenges must be viewed as opportunities that would enhance cooperative and sound race relations among various ethnic groups. There is little known for instance about the effect of organizational culture and communication of social networks in the workplace in terms of race and ethnic relations. Moreover, with emphasis if these fundamental differences are so prevalent to “outsiders”, how much more to organizational employees) (Ibid., 1994: 197). Organizational and cultural transformation is unfolding and gradual. The rising careerism and opportunist leadership have been created after the establishment of a democratic system of government in South Africa. This careerism and opportunist are based on the notion of self-interests and personal advancement at the expense of the taxpayers. Public officials and employees in the public sector do not see their role as to enhance and promote professionalism and effectual managerial abilities. Among African people there are two emerging groups within the South African society namely, the educated elite and the ruling elite. Also a new social fiber is developing whereby people are identified as belonging to a specific ethnic group (Leavy and Wilson, 1994: 163-164).
In South African public sector there are highly educated African people who struggle against the tide of change and a system that is hostile, which tries to marginalize them from participating from decision-making processes. The struggle in the past was against a common enemy called the apartheid regime, but today it is extremely difficult to make that distinction. The current ethnic conflict in the public sector is based on race and ethnicity. This is of course a new political landscape in the workplace situation, because there is a covert struggle whenever you enter the gates of a public domain. The previous struggle in the workplace was declared openly and the battle lines were clear. But after a democratic government was established these lines are blurred and the challenge is to promote the principles of democracy, justice, equality, and universal human rights. In addition, to realize these principles the challenge within a public institution is the reluctant top managers to transform and to changing their attitudes toward other ethnic groups (Mail & Guardian, 2001: 1:8). This add to the perception of those in charge, that you don not belong to their ethnic group and cycle of friends you are treated differently. People who suppose to be in authority are certain ethnic group, even if sometimes they do not have the necessary qualifications. Then as a victim of the circumstances you conclude that, I was born to a “wrong ethnic group” and a permanent “spectator” without any meaningful contribution to the functioning of the organization. When you have to participate in the game, rules are changed and you are not fit for the game. You need a mentor who happened to be from a different ethnic group, who actually does not understand your needs and aspirations. The preceding analysis is fundamentally and purely based on the racial clashes between black and white employees. But the most dangerous ethnic conflict in the public sector is deeply rooted among blacks, for instance if you apply for a job in a Xhosa or Sesotho dominated region and you do not people either of the two languages there is a high probability that you might not get the job. Someone who speaks the language would be favored, that is ethnic discrimination and if your last name if not known to the panel members and one has not established hi/her name in the corporate world. The extreme cases that are prevalent are the ethnic composition of the state departments in each of the nine provinces. Furthermore, the compositions of political parties, which constitute the South African parliament is also based on ethnicity, language and cultural, religious backgrounds. This goes without saying that, the political leadership in government would favor their respective constituencies at the expense of other ethnic groups. If the status quo remains unchanged, the efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, participation, transparency and accountability principles would be grossly affected. One is not suggesting that these can be changed over night, but attempts should be made to bring about realization that South African public sector is a multicultural organization, which should accommodate all the different ethnic groups (Magasela, 2001:).

Implications and ethnic conflicts
From a public sector perspective it is clear that ethnic conflict in the public sector will in-equivocally have serious implications so far as productivity and efficiency is concerned. Because limited resources are committed into efforts that are aimed at addressing race and ethnic relations among various groups. On the other hand, public institutions are legally required in terms of the Constitution of the Republic South Africa Act (Act 108 of 1996) to enhance and promote effective and efficient management of resources through cost-effective and sustainable delivery of services to all South Africans irrespective of their ethnic or cultural backgrounds. A serious of legislative measures have been promulgated since the introduction of the 1993 Interim Constitution as an attempt to deal vigorously with potential and anticipated ethnic conflicts in both the public and private domains. For example, the Employment Equity Act, (Act 55 of 1998), Skills Development Act, (Act 32 of 2000) and White Paper on Transformation of the Public Sector of 1995 the list is endless. The preceding pieces of legislation have deliberate and intended objectives as articulated in the preamble of each Act. But the most profound implications of these Acts is at the implementation phase whereby policy implementers are reluctant to give effect to these policies. Ethnic conflicts in the public sector are sometimes unbearable and therefore forces government to intervene because some managers are deliberately ignoring the implementation of government policies. This deliberate ignorance of the law cannot be used as an excuse and it can further be demonstrated by case studies to clearly articulate the seriousness and implications of ethnicity within public institutions.

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Ellar, J.D. and Coughlan, R.M.: The Poverty of Primordialism: The Demystification of Ethnic Attachments-Volume 16 Number 2, (1993) ( Routledge: Ethnic and Racial Studies).

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Magasela, W.: Highly Educated Blacks, (2001) (Johannesburg: Mail & Guardian).

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Nieuwmeijer, L. and du Toit, R.: Multicultural Conflict Management in Changing Societies, (1994) (Pretoria: HRSC).

© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.