Since 2002, the annual ALJGSB ‘Distinguished Leadership and Innovation Conference’, with cutting-edge lessons taught by global thought leaders, has been chock full of our local business leaders.
Yet the recent Ramsaran imbroglio unmasked glaring shortcomings by some of these same business leaders. These missteps have real-life consequences for us as a country, as we grapple with escaping the minefield of entrenched racist behaviour.
In 2019, the Business Roundtable (181 leading US business CEOs) capsized their 1997 opinion on the purpose of a corporation. Inter alia, the updated statement calls for ‘dealing fairly and ethically with their suppliers…and to foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect’.
Key points that were urged are ‘business as usual is no longer acceptable’ and the need for ‘an economy that serves all’.
Klaus Schwab, the Chair of the World Economic Forum, pronounced: ‘the threshold has moved substantially for what people expect from a company’. Tricia Griffith, of Progressive Corporation whose advertisements for insurance fill our US television feeds nightly, said: ‘the best-run companies… put the customer first and invest in their employees and communities… to build long-term value’.
Some of these leaders caused the White House business advisory group to be disbanded in rebuke of the US president’s tepid response to the 2017 Charlotteville white supremacy protest.
Do our business leaders have similar aspirations? Did our business leaders show gumption and deep understanding in handling of our thorny race challenge?
In the light of the developments, a fair question is: has damage been done to the chances for meaningful change? Have our leaders done good by their actions or were they engaged in tokenistic action? What improvements have the public gained from the experience?
Failure to confront racism at the national level provides fertile ground for the seeds of hatred to grow. Did our business leaders choose comfort over constructive conflict?
Their language and actions (un)fortunately laid bare the power dynamics at work. Racism happens when there is prejudice plus power. Effectively, the conversation swung from the comments made by the woman to revenge for perceived slights within the business community.
The comments, if parsed, reveal the fault lines within that community which go beyond the originating issue. After all the sound and fury, the unanswered question is ‘are the customers, on whose behalf the original actions were taken, satisfied with the outcome?’
The emotive and indecorous appropriation of the ‘lynching’ imagery by a participant underscores a complaint by NJAC chairman Aiyegoro Ome, during last month’s KFC contretemps, who said: ‘they cannot comprehend the symbols that enrage conscious Africans’.
Is it possible that the commentator did not understand the symbolism of lynching? Or was it just a grab of the very tool that is a horrid reminder of the painful practice of racial domination?
Who is really the victim here, the woman, the business or the aggrieved customers of unknown ethnicity? What are the structures that legitimise the violence, making it possible and tolerable?
This use of the symbol of lynching tops the previous week’s use of Langston Hughes’ poem and is unbelievably staggering. Have we collectively lost our minds?
Much has been made about the negative impact on the Ramsaran’s employees. This is a well seated concern but who has the primary responsibility for their well-being? Is it the family owners? Is it the rest of the business sector or the consuming public?
If the business sector and the public agree to be restrained in their response to the original comments for the national good, what ought then to be the obligations of the owners to the other two parties?
Significantly, nobody commented on the veracity of comments by persons claiming to be former Ramsaran’s Dairy Products employees, who said they were not surprised at the hateful comments by the family member on Facebook. The framing of what is the real problem and acceptance of that framing highlight how the agenda for the national conversation is set.
Some have postulated that the incident falls under ‘freedom of speech’. Speech was never free. Libel laws exist even though we struggle with the relevance of the Sedition Act.
The reported comments appeared to have suggested a threat to a specific group of people that could have led to injury. Would these comments and others like them lead to a more peaceful country? What version of ‘free speech’ are we supporting?
We should forgive as has been requested by some commentators. But when the word ‘sorry’ is decorated with enough qualifications to somehow turn the offender into the victim, is this really a plea for forgiveness? Or for acceptance of the excuses?
When the guilt is shifted from the offender and they do not own their actions but seek to become victims of circumstance, what is to be forgiven? God forgives sins and cautions us to do the same but does He forgive excuses?
The lesson of the Psalms is that when we deal seriously with our wrongs, we will be gently dealt with.
One final reminder should we believe in heaven. Rev 7: 9 talks about ‘ a great multitude that comes from every nation, tribe, people and language’ gathering together. No apparent rank is evident. No distinction made.
The implication is if we do not get along with each other here, how will we be able to do so there? Food for thought and hopefully a correction of our path.