DGMT and Race

Understanding race and racial discrimination

1.     ‘Race’ is a social construct – essentially a way in which we choose to look at one another, rather than discrete biological groupings of Homo Sapiens. Almost inevitably, our appearances provide an easy – perhaps lazy – way of clustering some of the biological and social diversity of human beings, even though these categories quite arbitrarily divide the phenotypic spectrum of humanity.

Phenotype: the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment.

2.     Individuals and groups have tended to align themselves with specific racial identities either as a means of power (in order to gain preferential access to resources) or protection (‘insiders’), or as a symbol of resistance and defiance in the face of discrimination (‘outsiders’). Whatever the reason, these alignments are facilitated by the human tendency to interpret differences in appearance, language or culture as ‘other’. 

3.     Even ethnicities, which have strong language and cultural underpinnings and may be viewed as self-made, are partly shaped by external factors – political, social and economic.  

4.     We must thus be able to recognise our common humanity and celebrate our diversity – yet still recognise the historical roots and prevailing influences that shape our language and praxis of diversity. 

5.     Some forms of self-identification (biological, individually preferential, cultural) create a sense of group belonging which co-exists comfortably with others. But when these identities are mobilised to exclude or disempower others, they become deeply divisive and prejudicial. 

6.     Racial discrimination is not benign; it is corrosive. It has no social value and constitutes a prejudicial ideology – racism, which plays itself out in power dynamics that leads to structural inequality. Racism continues to be a significant driver of inequality of socio-economic outcomes in South Africa and in many countries across the world – through the historical legacies of economic marginalisation, persistence of differential access to opportunity, and overt and subtle forms of exclusion that continue today. 

7.     Racism is deeply traumatic and painful, with effects that are transferred from generation to generation.   

8.     It is incumbent on those individuals and groups who – intentionally or otherwise – continue to derive advantage from white privilege must recognise this fact, so that it may be confronted and dismantled. This means that attitudes, thoughts and actions which perpetuate racism need to be unlearnt and new ways of ‘being human’ in a diverse society need to be learnt.  It also means giving up some material benefits and even opportunities, towards a more just society.

9.     In order to resist and ultimately overcome oppression, oppressed people must be able to self-identify and take pride in every part of who they are – even those aspects like physical appearance and skin colour which are used as instruments for discrimination. Black Consciousness and pride is a foil to prejudice and its devastating consequences on the human psyche. 

Acknowledging our past

10.  The DG Murray Trust team of Trustees and staff come from different backgrounds and different life experiences.  We want to be a team that values each person for who they are and what they can contribute to fulfilling our mission.  At the same time, we recognise that the injustices of the past still affect us – psychologically, financially, and socially. We can’t just wish them away and must be able to engage with each other in an honest, respectful and mutually affirming way.

11.  We also recognise that the very endowment of the DG Murray Trust is derived from an economic system that marginalised and excluded black people. DG Murray and his wife Eleanor were known to treat with respect every person with whom they interacted, and their clear direction that their endowment was to be available to people ‘of all races’. Still, the management structure of the firm he ran was all white, and all male – and until Shirley joined the Board in February 2010, the Board was exclusively white. These are the realities of our past, and some of the discomforts that those of us who are white continue to live with and must be able to acknowledge and actively seek to transform; and those who are black must be able to expose and to challenge.

Acknowledging our present

12.  The DGMT Board is now able to celebrate its true diversity of background, skills, experience and perspective – united in a common mission to develop South Africa’s potential.

13.  As a whole, the DGMT team is now equally diverse – and demonstrates a strong emergent leadership of people who are black and women. In this regard, DGMT has been deliberate in recognising and nurturing the talent of young black professionals. Still, the CEO and CFO are both white, and in time, as succession is considered there must be a pathway to transformation of leadership.

14.  The Board and management of DGMT must always strive to ensure that everyone in the team feels respected and affirmed, and able to raise even difficult and uncomfortable issues regarding issues of race and diversity within DGMT and its interactions with other groups and organisations. Specific mechanisms for dealing with prejudice – overt or subtle have been put in place, as well as bypass systems that enable any staff member to engage directly with the Chairperson and other Board members when they feel unheard or are uncomfortable with engaging with the DGMT executive.

Contributing to national leadership in matters of race

15.  DGMT is cognisant of the global and national dynamics of race – that the anger of many centuries is finding expression in new language and platforms (including Black Lives Matter), there is growing (white) nationalism and extremism in many countries (including the US, Australia and a number of European countries).  

16. We recognise and want to be part of addressing the race-based injustices of the past, even as we confront new dynamics of inequality in South Africa today – where class divides are fast widening. The average white South African continues to live a life of far greater advantage than the average black person – even as we acknowledge that a small percentage of black people have gained significant wealth, the income gaps between black and white is declining in relative terms, and the income disparities within all racial categories is widening at a faster rate.[1] 

17.  The most effective ways of addressing social and economic inequality is through universal access to early childhood development and quality education. These strategies must be pursued, together with strategies for land restitution and broad-based black economic empowerment.  

18.  However, anti-racism is not only about the pre- and post-tax redistribution of wealth.  It starts with recognition that there are innumerable social cues and power differentials at work – the way people see one another, talk to one another, talk about one another, interpret one another’s actions and motivation, etc.  In essence, it’s about how people value one another. The only way that people will really value each other as equals is through a genuine meeting of minds and spirits.  It cannot be forced, but it can be nurtured.  

19.  We are also aware of the extent of xenophobia in South Africa – which plays itself out in circumstances where people are competing for limited resources, but also is aggravated by the statements and actions of political and other leaders. Xenophobia is not a result of ‘poverty’; but is a form of racism and must be confronted as such.

20.  As a country, we are trapped in the terminology of the past – using apartheid-era categories (black African, coloured, Indian and white) to monitor the progress of strategies of redress. To the extent that these categories are helpful in identifying groups at disadvantage, they can be instruments of positive change. However, when they have little instrumental value in socio-economic redress, they can simply perpetuate the divisions of the past. Today, in terms of economic redress, there is little instrumental value in distinguishing between African, coloured and Indian – because the intra-race variation of income (i.e. within coloured, African and Indian groups) exceeds the inter-race variation i.e. these categories have little explanatory value in predicting the income inequality between three individuals identified in terms of these sub-categories of ‘Black’.   On the other hand, the categories ‘white’ and ‘black’ do still predict income differentials between two individuals. 

21.  Perpetuating apartheid language in the absence of any objective logic simply worsens the divisions between the groups. We should participate in dismantling the mind-sets that perpetuate those apartheid categories of people that serve no purpose in terms of economic redress.

22.  While groups must have the right to self-identify and may continue to categorise themselves culturally in different groups using old categories, our role as a South African public innovator should be to try and show how other identities – that cut across these racial classifications – should be valued and celebrated.  This was part of the thinking of Activate! aimed at surfacing and nurturing identities other than those defined in terms of race. One of its shortcomings was that very few white young people joined in. We must intensify our work to get whites to confront their privilege and understand what is required of them to be anti-racist, and to find different forms of identity that connect us beyond race.

23.  The net effect of anti-racism is positive. It adds social value.  Ultimately, it makes all of  society better off.

24.  Our vision is one where our terms of recognition of each other are truly multi-faceted, where the complexities of our respective identities are cherished and, ultimately, where we choose not to categorise one another in terms of phenotype.


[1] Hino H, Leibbrandt M, Machema R, Shifa M, Soudien C (2018) Identity, inequality and social contestation in the Post-Apartheid South Africa.  Saldru Working Paper 233, University of Cape Town http://www.opensaldru.uct.ac.za/bitstream/handle/11090/946/2018_233_Saldruwp.pdf?sequence=1