It’s September 2020, when the COVID-19 spike is expected to happen. The country’s returning to Level 4 despite pressure to escalate further to Level 5. In a speech to “dear fellow South Africans”, President Ramaphosa explains that public health programs are funded by an active economy; nonetheless, those who felt reopening in May was a bad idea say he’s surrendered to the business lobby and “White Monopoly Capital” at the cost of the economic compact he promised “among all role players — business, labour, community and government” for “inclusive growth”. Whether this is true isn’t as impactful as the perception that it is.
True to a report by the Office for National Statistics that says African women are 4.3 times more likely to die with Covid-19 than white women and the Employment Equity Report’s perennial indication of black female underrepresentation in corporate South Africa, the peak of the pandemic produces the death of a quintessential black female employee in a way that topples the legacy of President Ramaphosa’s response to the pandemic. Out come op-eds about capitalism’s brutal exploitation of the black female body, trailing articles published the Women’s Month before about the vacuity of corporate South Africa’s lip service to women’s contribution in society.
This case scenario extrapolates the pattern of underestimating the transformation implications of COVID-19 Occupational Health and Safety compliance. The Tripartite Alliance’s unions and the ANC Women’s League stand ready to present themselves to their constituencies as the answer to the sexism and racism that will be highlighted by the pandemic. During the listeriosis outbreak, the court of public opinion didn’t care about Tiger Brands’ food safety compliance irregularities, or its technical health and safety explanations about those: instead it selectively heard whatever corroborated pre-existing narratives on structural privilege and racism on the part of “white monopoly capital”, which it sees as “the old boys” internalising profits and externalising the costs of monopolising food value chains by cutting costs where it hurts black consumers. Sometimes agitated by demagogues, the public cares more about making an example of your business than how effectively you complied with technical legislation.
Today, Tiger Brands is the recipient of an Enterprise (haha) and Supplier Development award from the B-BBEE Commission because as we previously opined, the lack of visible transformation in its supply chain meant they had no goodwill buffer for mistakes. So to clarify, businesses whose staff die of COVID-19 are more likely to experience the public’s wrath for racism than for its technical compliance issues.
The Department of Employment and Labour will be inspecting workplaces for compliance to COVID-19 workplace readiness directives. But the best efforts at complying will reduce, not eliminate, the chances of employees getting infected. Now imagine you’re Jan, heir of a family fire-retardant material manufacturing outfit in Pinetown. Have you imagined what your employee Nosipho’s life would have been like if apartheid hadn’t defined the parameters of the opportunities she could access? You may not be aware of it, but she’s sensitive to the fact that her livelihood is tied to what you, a white man, believe about her economic value — as was her mother’s livelihood and her mother’s before her.
One morning, you innocently grumble about one incongruity in lockdown regulations. What Nosipho overhears is you questioning the economic existence of black government officials. This trigger’s Nosipho’s empathy towards those who’ve been in similar situations as herself and her mother, which matters more to her than the fairness of the criticism.
One of Nosipho’s colleagues dies of COVID-19, having caught it on workplace premises. You prepare to defend your business’s health and safety measures. But your struggle to procure Personal Protective Equipment, sanitizer, floor markers and the like took time you could have used to pause and listen to Nosipho’s concerns about how the pandemic affects people who look like her. So while she had a platform to raise her concerns, that platform was defined by untransformed stakeholder engagements just as the impact of the virus is experienced through an untransformed economy. That’s what’s waiting to blind-side your business. What can be done?
Businesses have to avoid “talking down” to their employees, and try to learn what they already know and think. Human-Centered Design Thinking and empathy will have to be at the transformed heart of Occupational Health and Safety interventions if businesses are going to use those interventions to buffer themselves from the risk of being considered racist, while increasing shared value-creation among themselves and their stakeholders. Those interventions will have to be aligned to the balance of those businesses’s comprehensive transformation plans because diversity appreciation and management strengthen organisations.
If Jan fails to understand this, his business may get sucked into a media storm where others seek to use him as a sacrificial lamb to prop up their agendas. Macro-cosmically, Ramaphosa’s engagements with “the business lobby” have to stress the prevention of the public impression that reopening the economy is at the cost of black bodies. Optics-management has to be more than skin-deep, though.
The private sector’s symbiosis with Ramaphosa is sustainable insofar as his relevance among voters is anchored in the impression that he’s driving the transformation agenda otherwise he’ll be lumped with “white monopoly capital”, which will continue being scapegoated for whatever goes wrong in South Africa.
Above: Protesters as recorded (with permission) by a BEE Novation employee, who happened to be on site. It seems one of their colleagues, Valerie, had died from the Coronavirus.
Contact us on info@BEEnovation.co.za or 060 000 BEE1 (2331) if you would like assistance with COVID-19 Health and Safety, or PPE gear.