Elsbeth Dixon, CEO of Common Purpose South Africa / 04 July 2023

We live in a “Rainbow Nation”, but its potential is yet to be unlocked

To be part of The Rainbow Nation of South Africa is to live in a country where diverse cultures and ethnicities are heard, understood and most importantly, celebrated.

Person walking down a rainbow pavement

To be part of “The Rainbow Nation” of South Africa, so poignantly put by Bishop Desmond Tutu, is to live in a country where diverse cultures and ethnicities are heard, understood and most importantly, celebrated. It’s a place where new doors are opened to new and valuable perspectives. It’s where bridges are built and strengthened across borders. It’s a place where we are always learning, always curious. But there’s a flaw in our system. Almost three decades have passed since Bishop Tutu first coined us as the “Rainbow Nation” in post-apartheid South Africa, yet here on the ground, we are still feeling disappointed, and even angry; we are failing to enable all parts of our rainbow to enjoy the benefits of our democratic era. To put it simply, our potential as a true, thriving “Rainbow Nation” is yet to be fully unlocked.

Almost 30 years after our first democratic election, South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient (a measure of societal inequality) in the world, and this inequality is still overwhelmingly due to racial lines. While yes, investments are ploughed into bursaries for previously disadvantaged individuals, with Black Economic Empowerment policies firmly in place, the boardrooms of corporate South Africa are still run predominantly by white males.

Add this to devastating black youth unemployment rates in South Africa, not to mention the fact that young black professionals feel the need to “leave their culture at the door” when they come to work in order to fit in with company culture, as I’ve heard time and time again in our work, and you begin to see that the impact of difference and discrimination still existing in our country are still abound.

So how do we fix a system that continues to let down the Rainbow Nation? A starting point is through Cultural Intelligence (CQ). In life’s Venn diagram of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Intelligence (EQ), CQ is the third, crucial circle that all leaders should not only possess, but practice every single day. There’s a catch; where IQ and EQ can be tested, our knowledge of CQ cannot be quantified. Instead, we constantly learn and mould our thinking and actions to it through experience and willingness to open our minds to learn. It’s about having those courageous conversations with our peers where we discuss difference. It’s about listening carefully to what other people are saying, and to be open and curious to their perspectives. It’s about being prepared to risk a little, and benefit a lot.

Picture this: An older white male professor engages in robust dialogue with his largely black students about how they can co-create a more effective educational space, with the students themselves taking ownership of their learning experience. Elsewhere, a multiracial group of bankers tell each other the stories of their upbringing, with the realisation dawning on each of them that each is a unique human first, not just a bearer of their societal label.

You see, CQ can unlock a power much greater than meeting a company target or securing the biggest contract. It breaks down barriers, it opens the door to new opportunities and viewpoints, and it brings harmony to dissonance that would otherwise hold us back.

With that being said, there will be challenges to achieving an effective level of CQ in South Africa that requires us all (and most importantly, senior leadership in any given company) to step up and outside of their comfort zones. Do we really expect people of a different ethnicity to others to give their best in a corporate culture when it’s in an environment where they don’t feel comfortable?

We need to be having courageous conversations with purpose. We need to unlock and appreciate the value of our own authenticity. We need to accept the value of a very different point of view to our own, and we need to incorporate very different ways of thinking and perspectives into our daily practice. By consciously growing our CQ, real change can begin.

Our path forward is clear: Here in South Africa, we have tasted the downsides and the disappointments and the dangers of failing to develop our CQ. Companies and organisations now need to bring CQ to the forefront and bring visibility and depth to the diversity, equity and inclusion conversations in the South African environment. The Rainbow Nation is not a gift inherited by South Africans, it’s a goal to be worked for, and it’s in all of our best interests.  


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