Diversity in Africa: The Coming of Age of a Continent

Keith Morrison (Macau Inter‐University Institute, Macau, People's Republic of China)

Equal Opportunities International

ISSN: 0261-0159

Article publication date: 2 May 2008



Morrison, K. (2008), "Diversity in Africa: The Coming of Age of a Continent", Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 405-407. https://doi.org/10.1108/02610150810874368



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is an ambitious book. When I first saw the title my immediate reaction was that here was going to be another metanarrative that would be replete with generalisations, stereotypes and platitudes in order to cover the whole of a continent. I could not have been more mistaken. Here is a very carefully and closely wrought, scholarly, dense and well‐written volume that unpacks difference and diversity in all its hues and consequences, with great lucidity, erudition, insight, and success. The editors have done a marvellous job in assembling diverse and interesting papers about diversity, and these richly repay study.

Diversity is with us. It is multi‐faceted and inescapable; this volume does justice to such complexity. The papers provide richly‐textured, emic accounts of the field, written by insiders with empathy, understanding and wisdom, and ranging from numerical data to stories and oral history. Further, in times of evidence‐based everything, this volume is replete with evidence on hard and soft facets of the issues in question.

The book catches and conveys the dignity that it advocates for Africa and Africans, without condescension but with feeling and humanity. Here is a book that embraces values, epistemology, ontology and deontology in its considerable sweep of topics, and it contains a wealth of material and a wonderful diversity of papers, from Bhorat's careful and data‐rich analysis of market labour trends in South Africa to Mkunu's wonderfully impassioned, passionate and compassionate call for women's contributions to be recognised so that “Africa will be saved … Africa will be restored … Africa will be united” (p. 126).

The volume moves seamlessly and logically from one stage to the next. Firstly there is conceptualisation, rationale and definition of diversity, African values and social identity (e.g. the papers by Mbigi on “Rethinking leadership and wealth creation in Africa”, Mendelek Theimann's and April's paper “Cave canem! The art (or science) of western management in an African context”, Theimann's paper “The lions mark their territory” and Burgess's paper “Within‐country diversity”). The next stage describes contexts and trends that inform the recognition of diversity in Africa (Mendelek Theimann and April). This is followed by examples of diversity (e.g. Mbigi on “The hunter's spirit” and Verster on the training provided by the company “Kumba Resources”). Then the volume moves to providing data on diversity (Bhorat on market trends, and Dunne and Sayed on gendered access to higher education). The move is then to addressing diversity in marketing and markets (Burgess). Towards the end of the book there are touching applications (Matemba on a development intervention programme that largely failed because of cultural insensitivity, and Clarke on responses to, and actions in, the HIV Aids pandemic, not least of which are “human scale developments” and interventions (pp. 278‐98). Though one can discern a staged sequence through the book, each chapter also sets agendas for diversity realisation and development.

For a reader who is not versed in key principles underpinning approaches to understanding Africa, its peoples and its identity, the book provides copious clarification of ubuntu (e.g. the papers by Mendelek Theimann and April, van der Colff, and Theimann) and African values (e.g. of sharing, deference to rank, commitment, regard for compromise and consensus, openness, good relations (pp. 32‐3), respect and dignity (p. 47), and their impact on management, and in showing how such principles relate to those in western and, indeed Asian, cultures. In this respect the tables in the paper by Mendelek Theimann and April are very helpful, possessing considerable summary value and being marked by clarity. Indeed their paper typifies the whole volume's withering critique of the mean‐mindedness of western management and leadership, e.g. its instrumentalism (e.g. p. 26), its neglect of humanitarianism, and its selfish, self‐interested exploitation of people and resources. It is a delicious irony that the kleptocracies for which Africa has long been pilloried is turned back on to the West here, and very persuasively.

There are many leitmotivs running throughout the book, for example: equity and equality in diversity; empowerment and emancipation; social identity; culture and cultural sensitivity; education and human capital investment; leadership and management in business and a diversity of organizations. It would have been helpful, perhaps, to have had these signalled in a fuller introductory chapter by the editors, indeed the editors’ conclusion and afterword could usefully have become an introduction or a foreword. Further, deeper theoretical foundations could have been adopted in certain papers, for example: reference could have been made to agency and structure, (e.g. in Booysen's two papers) and this could have been unpacked in terms of Giddens's theory of structuration; human capital theory and its greater returns for developing rather than developed countries could have been underpinned more fully by the work of Thurow and Schultz; empowerment, emancipation, transformative moments and critiques of instrumentalism would have benefited from reference to the Frankfurt School; the work of Hofstede (e.g. pp. 59‐70) could have been complemented by greater treatment of, rather than a passing reference to, the work of Triandis (p. 59); and finally, sometimes I asked myself “who is the African in question?”, and I would have welcomed a clear answer. These are minor carps.

An editor's job is not easy, balancing diversity and the autonomy of each author with a need for overall coherence. In large part this has been successful here, though the examples in the papers by Matemba and Clarke, whilst interesting instances of practice, were, for me, over‐extended in the context of the thrust of the whole volume. Clarke's recounting of the story of Ethel Nosipho Dyabuza and her quiet emancipation moved me greatly, embodying ubuntu (“I am who I am through others”) (p. 30) and the “truth and goodness” mentioned by Mendelek Theimann and April (p. 16). The arrogance of western bombast has a lot to learn from her, indeed, more widely, the West needs its own truth and reconciliation with regard to Africa. The combined value of collectivism, relationships and collective identity, long established in Asian and African cultures, is a lesson long overdue in the West, which could attenuate its aggressive and arrogant individualism.

Africa is changing, and the papers in this volume catch well the spirit of change. They tell a fascinating story of renewal and a reassertion of identity. That said, the volume does not shy away from indicating clearly the pressing need for the rhetoric of equality to become a reality, and that it still has a long way to travel. Bhorat's paper indicates that “the economy's relative employment performance has been inadequate” (p. 189) and that focus should be placed on “labour supply issues” and the upskilling of the workforce (p. 190). Dunne and Sayed's paper indicates that increased female access to higher education “has not been associated with widened access” to science and engineering (p. 235), nor has there been a commensurate increase in female staff recruitment. Booysen shows that, even with power shifts in organizations (e.g. from the predominance of the white male to the greater economic, management and political empowerment of black males and females), black females are still under‐represented in senior positions (p. 138), being doubly disadvantaged by dint of their colour and sex (p. 147), there is still tokenism in employment (p. 141), “[b]lack staff are not systematically developed and trained” and are placed in “soft” positions (p. 141). In calling for “cultural intelligence” (p. 151) she illustrates the continuing divide between advocacy and practice in South Africa. The attraction of many of the papers is that they identify challenges to be faced, they set out agendas for development and indicate how to approach them. They embody Marx's famous dictum from his Theses on Feuerbach: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, it to change it”, and his perhaps lesser known thesis that “social life is essentially practical”.

The scope of the papers is vast. Though many of them focus on South Africa, also Egypt, sub‐Saharan Africa and southern Africa more widely are included in many papers (e.g. by Mkunu, Dunne and Sayed, and Clarke). Perhaps there could have been a more even coverage here. Further, many African countries are changing rapidly, not least South Africa, and five to ten years is a long time in such a context; whilst most of the papers are up‐to‐date in their referencing, six of the 15 papers contained no references from the five years prior to the year of publication. This was surprising. The paper by Matemba seemed to stop abruptly without an ending or conclusion (p. 259); it was left hanging in the air. Some of the references (e.g. to Freire in the paper by De Wet (p. 113) and to the “small world problem” in the paper by Matemba (p. 255)) were not only understated but commonplace in educational literature and network analysis, respectively; they needed either greater justice to be done to them in this volume, or to be excised.

The papers here are seminal, and this volume is a watershed book. It is a demanding read, and this is its attraction, sometimes requiring (quite correctly) background knowledge in the reader (e.g. the scholarly paper by Mendelek Theimann and April), and the papers richly reward the reading time required. Though its editors indicate that the book is a core text for MBA programmes, this is to belittle its scope: it should be compulsory reading for courses in cross‐cultural understanding and interaction, and for courses on African studies. As a foil to western management texts and practices it should be required reading for management courses in the West; it opens minds and hearts.

In the end the book practises what it preaches: ubuntu and the principles of humanitarian leadership and management (that which the western world needs to recover, and quickly). There is much to learn from this very important text, and the editors should be both applauded and thanked for the production of a high quality, rigorous and influential set of readings. Coming of age, as the book's title mentions, is a serious yet joyful experience, usually accompanied by celebrations; this book is a wonderful celebration, of Africa and of Africans. In fact I think that Africa has come of age for a long time, it is just that others did not realise it.

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