South Africans use the word “transformation” in a way that’s often surprising to outsiders. In the rest of the world it just means a particularly significant or sudden change; to us, it signifies a complex web of ideas encompassing affirmative action, redress for the wrongs of apartheid, reducing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth and re-engineering entire organisations to be more “representative” (a very contested word) of the country’s population.
I’m hardly the first person to argue that our national obsession with transformation – especially the way it inevitably translates to a headcount quota – has become counterprodutive and even farcical. Anyone who has successfully qualified as an accountant, regardless of gender or race, has received the same training, has to read the same balance sheets and must deal with the same business environment.
In fact, as accountants we’re in a particularly enviable position here. Everything we do is about the numbers – more than in many other kinds of work, we can measure our performance objectively and rigorously.
Given that we’ve been handed the beauty of a defensible, quantifiable way to assess individual merit, why throw that away? Why single out certain members of the group of accountants for special treatment because they happen to be (let’s say) women? In the long term, the only effect of that is to support the false perception that women are somehow inferior or less competent.
If people face genuine discrimination in their working environment, let’s rather deal with that directly instead of focusing on how many people from which group are employed at what level.
For example: If women are disadvantaged because they have greater family responsibilities, let’s give men some space to take on family responsibilities as well, instead of putting some token women on the board. In some Scandinavian countries, it’s up to each family to decide who takes the maternity or paternity leave – there is no assumption about who will stay home. Work-life balance is an issue across the board, and acknowledging that both men and women have families is good for everyone.
Treating people first and foremost as representatives of a group, rather than the unique individuals they are, is fundamentally wrong. Instead of focusing on – and thereby entrenching – the arbitrary groups and categories and stereotypes that we have created, let’s rather focus on creating organisations that allow every person to fulfill their potential and perform at their peak. Then, and only then, will we be able to slay the demons of our past and realise our potential as a nation.
Author: Kevin Phillips CA(SA) is the Managing Director of idu Software.