Institutional racism is deeply ingrained in the corporate culture of many South African organisations, and in its undermining of the well-being of black people. Labour, racial peace and productivity are devastating, yet many deny its existence, which means solutions will remain elusive.

Institutional racism assaults the dignity of black people in an organisation, undermines their health, can cause anger and poison the affected employees’ personal relations, outside their jobs as well. It causes black people to continue to mistrust whites, destroys South Africa’s brittle social cohesion and pushes ordinary blacks to seek answers in populism, such as calls for wholesale nationalisation.

Many South African organisations have failed to recognise and address institutional racism’s existence and causes, which allows such racism to remain part of organisations’ culture.

Colonialism and apartheid were all-encompassing systems, involving not just individuals, but throughout institutions, professions, public and private sectors, infecting them with institutional racism. Institutional racism was deeply entrenched in housing, banking, mining, education, arts, farming, churches, the media, and so on.

The Sri Lankan scholar of race, Ambalavaner Sivanandan described institutional racism as a form of racism which, whether “covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn”. In short, a big part of institutional racism are the “routine ways” in which black people are treated by organisations.

Under institutional racism, black people in organisations “receive different and less favourable treatment” than whites. Such “differential treatment need be neither conscious nor intentional, and it may be practiced routinely by white managers whose “professionalism is exemplary in all other respects”.

White employees in many organisations often benefit from “white privilege”, which are the advantages accrued to a person purely on their “whiteness”.

Institutional racism is ingrained in South Africa’s dominant corporate organisational culture which emerged from the institutional environment of colonialism and apartheid. These systems made the dehumanisation of blacks in all facets of life, including workplaces, normal. The treatment of blacks in organisations is therefore based on the assumption that they are inferior to whites in all aspects of their lives.

South Africa’s corporate organisational culture has a number of broad pillars, each of them embedded in institutional racism. In the colonial and apartheid-eras, South Africa’s organisational culture was based on the structuring of workplace power based on race, a clear racial division of labour, and segregation of organisational space, facilities and benefits based on race.

There was a racial hierarchy which reserved professional jobs and skills, top management and boardrooms for whites. The dominant corporate management culture was top-down, hierarchical, with decisions made by top management and employees required to execute at the lower end.

This top-down management culture was built on racially segregated workplaces, where whites are predominantly in top positions and blacks in inferior ones. Blacks were not only mostly the employees that had to follow instructions, but management and ownership were mostly white.

Workplaces were segregated, from having separate toilets and eating places for whites, to lower salaries, having less or no benefits and pensions for blacks.

The colonial and apartheid corporate model is that profit-making is generally based on low wages, minimal skills transfer, and minimal rights for the predominantly low-level black employees.

In contrast, mainly white executives receive huge remuneration, profit-shares and benefits. Basic benefits such as housing, skills upgrades and medical aid are hard to come by for such low-level black employees.

During colonialism and apartheid, there were no obligations on organisations to regulate the health and safety of black employees – because blacks were perceived to be inferior in any case, and therefore were not deemed to need rights.

Many black South Africans were victims of mine-related diseases, for example asbestosis, whose manifestation can be directly linked to institutional racism at mining companies, which saw blacks as inhuman and their lives dispensable.

In the post-apartheid era, institutional racism remains in many South African organisations “disguised in standard operating procedures”, policies and rules, whether criteria for appointment, promotion or measuring “competency” or valuing ideas.

Stereotypes of black people as essentially inferior has become embedded. To some extent, the stereotyping of blacks has become entrenched within organisations because white’s interactions with blacks are still largely based on blacks being the low-paid, low-skilled and low-benefit receiving staff, while whites are mostly in management, highly-paid and highly skilled positions, as it was during apartheid.

Whiteness or white privilege

“Whiteness” or “white privilege” where white employees are automatically seen as competent because of their skin colour, whereas black employees are automatically perceived to be less competent and prone to corruption, or have to work harder to prove themselves before they receive recognition, still dominates within many organisations.

Recent studies, including those from Eddie Webster, Karl von Holdt and Andries Bezuidenhout, have confirmed that although the formal colour bar, whereby whites earn higher salaries, receive more benefits and have better positions compared to blacks, codified by apartheid segregation laws, rules and norms, this situation remains mostly the same, now through an informal colour bar.

Even where blacks occupy senior positions they usually earn less, have less benefits and less responsibility than whites in similar positions. Increasingly black applicants are required to have higher qualifications for jobs which had in the past been done by whites needing less or no qualifications.

Other manifestations of institutional racism is the expectation that blacks should work harder than whites, that because they are black they should get less remuneration and benefits because blacks supposedly can make do with less. Blacks in senior positions often have less decision-making power, than whites in similar positions, but are expected to do more.

Suggestions, proposals and input by blacks are often ignored, but if a white employee makes the same suggestions, in some cases just differently worded, it is taken seriously and acted upon.

Continuing institutional racism is one reason why many white managers and owners appear to be reluctant to genuinely empower black workers in the workplace – many simply cannot see black workers as equal human beings.

Under “whiteness” or “white privilege”, privileges in organisations are automatically bestowed on people of white colour. It is often automatically assumed that white people will be competent in a job, whereas blacks will have to proof themselves first. The other institutional racism phenomenon is, “blackness”, whereby marginalisation of a person – whether deliberately or unconsciously happens, because the person is black.

There has to be “an unequivocal acceptance” that institutional racism is widely entrenched in South African organisations.

Organisations, especially those who predate 1994, have to own up to institutional racism and perhaps set up their own company Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to probe their past racist practices. They must pay reparations to the current and past employees and will have to pursue genuine affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

Black employees must be treated with dignity, equality and respect. They need to remunerated at the same rate, receive the same benefits and have the same workloads as their white counterparts.

Organisations must equally value black employees’ contributions and introduce compulsory prejudice, racism and diversity awareness programs to all staff. They must do regular race climate surveys to test institutional racism. Diverse workforces, management and shareholding are prerequisites to end institutional racism.

William Gumede is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times.