Examining the Effects of Colonialism and Apartheid on South African Organizations

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South Africa was significantly influenced by two pervasive historical experiences—colonialism and Apartheid—and the effects of both remain present in the country today. These experiences not only impact people and society in general, but also the organizations that are functioning in South Africa. It should come as no surprise that the organizations within a country are influenced by the same factors and experiences that shape society. These same factors therefore influence both the leaders of organizations as well as the rank-and-file membership, whether these are employees in the private sector or in public (government) organizations. It is unavoidable that the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, including the region that became South Africa, would influence and ultimately shape the subsequent systems developed there. This paper proposes that colonialism continues to exert a greater (primarily negative) influence on South African organizations than the negative influence exerted by Apartheid. Specifically, it is suggested that the racial disparity of Apartheid is now directly dealt with in South Africa and is recognized as an issue needing addressed. However, the structure of organizations and style of management in South Africa continue to reflect colonial (Western) influences, and are often not viewed as problematic, in spite of the fact that more Afrocentric styles could be much more effective in addressing the cultural leanings of society and helping the country move forward.

Using conflict theory as the basis, this paper seeks to examine the influence that colonial policies made on society and management in South African organizations. Specifically, an examination of conflict theory will first explain the role of colonization-based conflict in the development of South African organizations, including a lack of indigenous management policies or philosophies. The position taken by this paper does not imply that the negative effects of Apartheid are a thing of the past or that they are not serious. However, since all sides are at least talking about racial issues and taking specific actions to correct the atrocities of the past, South African organizations can be assessed as moving away from the negativity of Apartheid. In contrast, this paper will show that organizations across the country continue to embrace many of the same colonial frameworks utilized by Western oppressors and that this prevents South Africa from moving forward on its own merit and based on its own cultural values.

Reasons for Selecting Conflict Theory

Conflict is common in many (if not most) human relationships, and colonialism added another element to this reality, creating even higher levels of conflict at every level of society, including in the organizations that were established to control economic and political life. Conflict occurs when an individual, or group, perceives certain actions as affecting them in a negative way, especially when such actions interfere with typical activities or expectations (Robbins and Judge 13). The process of colonization disrupted entire societies and allowed outsiders to gain control over the populations of extensive regions around the globe. Consequently, colonization assured conflict, as the Western powers sought control over indigenous groups, and those groups were prevented from exercising self-governance or the continued operation of their societal structure.

Much literature addresses the topic of conflict and attempts to explain the processes involved (see, e.g., Collins 49), but most authors and experts trace the beginning of conflict theory to the writing of classical theorist, Karl Marx (Bartos and Wehr 4; Collins 49). In particular, Marx was concerned with the conflict between the working class and those in control of the system (the so-called bourgeoisie), since maintaining power and control to achieve economic goals was at the center of that conflict. Interestingly, colonization—regardless of where it took place in the world—created a similar conflict, but between native inhabitants and Western nations. To Marx, any system based on exploitation was unstable and created natural conflict. Over time, that conflict results in negative outcomes for the working class, or those being exploited as well as those holding power, since the system is unsustainable.

While the theory of conflict developed by Marx centered on the conflict between elites and the working class, elements of his theory apply to colonization, including the colonization of Africa. An initial, and perhaps most obvious, source of conflict that resulted from colonization was the establishment and maintenance of clear class distinctions between the colonial rulers and those under their control—the indigenous population (Duke 66). Western powers often stayed in control of their African colonies through the use of surrogates who functioned on behalf of the ruling class. This system naturally resulted in conflict, especially since existing systems were replaced and the natural development of indigenous society and organizations was thwarted.

A second element included in conflict theory and noted by Marx arises as the result of differences in race. The second relevant type of conflict under the theory is based on race (Duke 66). All of the colonial powers, and especially the British, viewed themselves as members of a superior race that had a natural right to dominate other races, which were viewed as innately inferior. Since the British who colonized South Africa were convinced that their systems were superior to all others, they forced the population to conform to their idea of what civilization should be. Long before Apartheid, the belief that Whites were superior and Blacks should remain subservient was part of colonization in Africa.

Colonization of Africa created the basis for conflict on a variety of levels, ranging from the broader conflict between races and societies as well as conflicts between individuals. On both levels, conflict can be assessed based on processes and relationships (Jehn 530). At the most basic level, Africans were no longer able to work solely for their own interests or welfare, but had to work for the ruling class—the British colonizers. Thus, conflicting goals resulted in a natural conflict between individuals, since there was an unequal distribution of benefits resulting from the work of the native population. Since the relationships that developed between groups that were under colonial control and the colonial ruling class were—by definition—based on inequality, there was little basis for such relationships to exist on the basis of cooperation and trust, which are typically key elements in the avoidance of conflict (Yang and Mossholder 589). Even if conflict was not displayed outwardly, feelings of discontent and even hostility toward the colonizers would be commonplace within the African colonies.

Application of Conflict Theory to South African Organizations

Just because conflict existed between the British colonizers and the indigenous population of South Africa does not, by itself, imply long-term negative results for the country. It may be argued that the colonial powers provided the basis for organizations and a societal structure that was beneficial for the population. An assessment of the overall impact of colonization must, therefore, include a careful examination of all relevant factors as well as the current status of organizations within South Africa. There is no question that colonization influenced the development of organizations, and the attitudes and philosophies of leaders of organizations, in the country. The purpose of this paper is to determine if this influence was productive or if it resulted in negative effects for South Africa. This section addresses the ways that colonial influences—and resultant conflicts—are apparent in South African organizations.

Conflict theory, as espoused by Marx, became widely popular and a topic for research and analysis especially as a result of the industrial revolution, which created an even deeper divide between classes in many countries. In many ways, the theory formed the basis for minor revolts and outright revolutions that sought to remove social conflict and the reformation of social and economic relations (Bartos and Wehr 4). The colonial powers continued to hold on to their sources of wealth in the colonies, and often used claims of racial superiority and ethnic identity as the basis for their efforts. These conflicts made it clear that conflict theory could be used to analyze these relationships, since it became clear that something more than instinct was motivating the actions of the Western powers.

Unfortunately, even as the colonial powers withdrew from Africa, conflict did not go away with them, since additional conflicts between ethnic groups and tribes sprung up to take the place of conflict between Western and African culture. Unfortunately, the policies established by the British during the colonial period guaranteed that conflict would occur after their departure. Specifically, the British divided land based solely on their needs and methods of control, without consideration for the existing groups’ relationships or structures of power (Bartos and Wehr 5). As a result of the colonial influences, Africans learned the concept of “divide and rule” (Bartos and Wehr 5), in which those in power use certain individuals or groups to maintain control over others. This practice further drove a wedge between the existing cultural and societal elements of South Africa.

Conflict continued due to resentment between members of groups as well as one group against another, and this conflict was, in many cases, instigated by the colonial powers as they exited Africa to make sure that their proxies maintained control of their economic interests. The study of these events has been based, in large part, on conflict theory. Additionally, since there were few, if any, significant organizations in South Africa prior to colonization, it is inevitable that the structure and methods for direction of existing organization are based on lessons learned from the British, and follow European patterns.

One concept learned from colonization and applied in South African organizations is based on the existence of Manipulative Elites (ME). Put simply, just as the Western powers sought to maintain a divide between those in power and the working class, the concept of ME is based on the practice of divisions between social and ethnic groups which encourages a hierarchal process of management and governance, discouraged advancement by the lower classes (Oberschall 181). The primary way that elite groups maintain power is by emphasizing differences between social groups, which prevents diverse groups from working together in an attempt to obtain power. Unlike Apartheid—which solely emphasized racial differences in South Africa—elites operate in such a way as to focus on social divisions, which may cross racial or ethnic lines.

The British technique of administering the affairs of the country was adopted by South Africans after they gained independence. In effect, the vast majority of economic, political and social decisions and organizations are still patterned after those established under colonization. Both public and private organizations in South Africa reflected the attitudes of society, which (unknowingly by most) was structured by colonization. Whatever indigenous management style or attitudes toward workers practiced prior to colonization were completely replaced by the rigid and authoritarian style favored by the British, who viewed their methods as obviously superior to all others. Subsequently, following the end of the colonial period, the only method of management or organizational governance that many South Africans knew was that practiced by the British, and it was naturally followed. Such Western management styles are naturally sources of conflict, as they continue to stress the importance of divisions between classes and those with and without power.

Rather than developing its own management and leadership styles, based on the culture and attitudes native to South Africans, the country’s organizations have been influenced and shaped by colonialism and the conflicts that are inherent with that legacy. An additional element which contributed to the willingness of South Africans to simply follow Western methods for organizational structure is the diversity within the country. While cultural, racial and even religious diversity is often beneficial, in this case it could have prevented a coherent African-based management or organizational style to emerge. Rather, it was simply easier to maintain what was familiar, regardless of the fact that it was the method used by oppressive colonialists. As a result, the levels of conflict within South African organizations remain high.

In reality, South African organizations are operated almost identically to the way many Western (European) organizations operate. Management and administrative theories likewise mimic those practiced in European environments. This is true both for organizations controlled by foreign offices as well as most domestic organizations, without foreign partners. In many cases, foreign companies control every aspect of South African organizations, even though South African managers are placed in positions of relative authority.

South Africa is undoubtedly undergoing a massive transformation, and part of this change is supported by the nation’s cultural heritage, while the most widely known cultural element of its past—Apartheid—is being relegated to history. Every group inside the country has had to accept radical changes related to power and control both at the governmental and societal levels (Booysen 1-20). Cultural changes are not easily accomplished, nor do they happen at the same pace for all members of any particular group. As a result, many in South Africa are still attempting to determine what race, ethnicity and culture mean in their post-Apartheid nation (Chipkin and Lipietz). In many ways, people are redefining how culture and identity define their personal role in society (Fatoki and Chiliya 13-21). Admittedly, this can cause problems for individuals who are still attached to the culture of the past, and such problems often result in conflict.

Hypothesis Based on Conflict Theory

As mentioned in the introduction, the hypothesis proposed for this paper is that colonialism has had a greater negative influence on the development of organizations in South Africa than Apartheid. There is no doubt that Apartheid is the most recognized negative influence in South African history, due to its blatant mistreatment of the Black majority of the country. In addition, it resulted in a lasting legacy that still permeates much of South African society, in spite of the progress made in race relations in the country since the 1990s, and the end of Apartheid. On the other hand, colonialism was a process that directed the formation of the structures of South Africa, including political, educational and social organizations. Therefore, it is proposed that it will be much harder, and take much longer, to overcome the negative influences of colonialism than it will be to put Apartheid in the past.

Description of Case: South African Organizations

The culture and attitudes of a country as well as of specific groups within a country are typically manifested in the culture and attitudes of the organizations in which people function. This is apparent in the emphasis (or lack of emphasis) placed by management on employee relations and how these relations correspond with societal culture (Louw and Jackson 29). In South Africa, the cultural influences that shape the business world come from Western influences—as the result of colonization—and only minimally on indigenous African attitudes and beliefs (Marais 7-8). Some organizations in South Africa operate under a somewhat hybrid management system which incorporates cultural elements of both African and Western styles of management, but this is certainly not the norm. In many cases, the cultural attitudes of company executives is reflected throughout the organization, while some companies are trying to be more adaptive to the culture of their stakeholders (Fatoki and Chiliya 13-21). The influence of the Apartheid years is still felt in some businesses, but changes are steadily being made so that these are now the exception rather than the rule.

The Eurocentric management style describes a concept of management based on Western sensibilities and attitudes toward business and management and also includes the way managers in Britain or the United States typically function (de Waal and Chipeta). Primarily, this style of management highly values individualism and rewards those who work hard to achieve success—personally and in the context of the workplace (de Waal and Chipeta). A Eurocentric management style includes the belief that others in the business relationship—such as vendors and employees—should be viewed as adversaries. This contributes to the existence of an ongoing state of conflict and may often result in problems at various levels in the organization.

In South Africa, a Eurocentric management style is primarily utilized, based on a cultural inclination to prefer hierarchies and autocratic leadership methods (de Waal and Chipeta), and this is a direct result of colonial influences. While all outward elements of Apartheid are consciously being eliminated from society, there is little that can be done to remove the subconscious elements that remain ingrained in the psyche of much of the population, including those in the business world. It will undoubtedly take a considerable period of time before some are able to overcome this reality, and some likely never will (de Waal and Chipeta). In contrast, there is little effort (or thought) given to the removal of the vestiges of colonization that remain ingrained in management styles and organizational structures.

The Afrocentric style of management—which many Africans advocate as an alternative to Western styles—is based specifically on African cultural elements which shape the way management operates and treats others both inside and outside the organization (Mkabela 178). A primary driving force behind this management style is based on the African concept called “Ubuntu”, which is a value system developed within South African culture (Nussbaum 1-12). Ubuntu implies that each individual fills an important role in society and that, by identifying and filling that space, each individual contributes to the foundation of society (de Waal and Chipeta). The concept of Ubuntu is beneficial for employees and other stakeholders of an organization, since they are valued by management and share in an environment that far from autocratic. In most cases, Afrocentric managers encourage free and open communication and promote a more informal workplace (Gupta 221). Ubuntu stresses collectivism rather than individualism and does not stress the spirit of competition that is favored in Western management styles (Nussbaum 1-12). Indeed, this Afrocentric concept opposes conflict, rather than embracing it as is the case with European management thinking.

Test of Hypothesis

In many parts of Africa, conflict increased following the end of colonial rule. However, it must be noted that these conflicts were the direct result of colonization. The colonial powers, by dividing land to suit their own selfish purposes, created groups that did not historically work together, while eliminating historic processes for resolving conflict between ethnic groups and tribes. It must be recognized that the seeds of the postcolonial wars themselves lie in the sociological and political conflict that was created by colonialism in Africa. In the West, effective state organizations are widely perceived as essential for the preservation of internal stability and order. In Africa, the organizations established by Europeans (including many of the countries formed in the aftermath of colonization) were not effective. They were developed in newly fashioned countries and built on insubstantial bases. The Africans who inherited these states from the Europeans had, likewise, little experience in governing themselves. Self-government is not something easily taught and, therefore, failed states are one of the major sources of conflict in postcolonial Africa.

One reason why South Africa has not failed as a state is its commitment to democratic peace and principles (after Apartheid) and an attempt to unite rather than divide its citizens. From the outset of Black majority rule in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) promised to “canonise human rights in our international relations” and determined that South Africa would play a “central role” in a “worldwide human rights campaign” (Geldenhuys 32). Additionally, the ANC assured the world that “we shall not be selective nor, indeed, be afraid to raise human rights violations with countries where our own interests might be negatively affected” (Geldenhuys 32). Learning the lesson from their treatment under White rule, South African Government leaders were committed to establish that “Human rights are the cornerstone of our government policy and we shall not hesitate to carry the message to the far corners of the world” (Geldenhuys 32). This commitment and the changes it created placed an emphasis on democratic principles at both the governmental and the business level. Protection of human rights became a standard feature of management practices in the new South Africa. Thus, South Africa took decisive and clearly-defined action to separate itself from Apartheid. But, it took no such action to move away from the Eurocentric management and organizational structures which resulted from colonization.

While a commitment to democracy and human rights is the focus of South African foreign policy, it also is at work in domestic society, since improving economic and social conditions for much of the formerly disenfranchised population is a key focus of the government’s efforts (Geldenhuys 38). Simply put, the culture of the ruling class and the general population is currently in agreement, in contrast to the oppressive environment under Apartheid. Finally, the underlying culture of the majority of South Africans is dominating the country’s progressive movement (Luthans, Van Wyck and Walumbwa 512). In reality then, the realization that Apartheid was a terrible stain on South Africa created the impetus for the country to make progress that would otherwise have been impossible under other circumstances. While the effects of Apartheid may still remain in some ways, the vast majority rejects it and is trying to move on.

However, until an Afrocentric management style becomes more widely adopted in South Africa, the country will remain negatively influenced by colonization. But, there is often a divergence between how managers might prefer to act based on culture (such as the concept of Ubuntu) and the actuality of the business operation (Boessenkool and van Rinsum 183). An additional factor which may thwart the efforts of South African managers to apply a truly ‘African’ approach to management is a lack of historical precedent for such a practice and, once again, this is the direct result of colonization. Indeed, while managers may have a desire to value the individual, the complex reality of operating a business, or any organization, at a high level may limit the ability to apply such values to a culturally diverse workforce. Multiculturalism, such as exists in South Africa, brings with it a complex set of dynamics and managers must learn to provide equal opportunities for individuals from all cultures as part of the fundamental operations of the business (Gupta 240). The potential for conflict, therefore, continues to exist, even as the country takes steps to become fully integrated into the global community.

Management in South Africa is still, in many cases, learning how to incorporate its own cultural leanings into a system that also recognizes and values the culture of others within the organization. Much of this effort is directed toward fine-tuning concepts of power and control (Jackson and Schuler 123). South African businesses have an obligation legally to comply with established requirements designed to support and promote diversity. Thus, the country faces many additional elements that other countries have long since dealt with, including equity in employment and the proper exercise of power (Fatoki and Chiliya 13-21). The perceived slow pace of progress in this regard often results in conflict between groups with divergent levels of power and privilege, which simply complicates the process further.

South Africa reveals the many contrasts that exist between the underlying values of society and how management is actually practiced in most cases. This contrast also creates a challenge for many organizations to accurately address the issues of power and hierarchies in management, especially how these relate to managing diversity (Louw and Jackson 29). It is impossible to fully appreciate a diverse culture unless time is taken to discuss the types of competencies that are required to properly manage in a multicultural environment. While there is still much progress to be made, it is clear that most managers in South Africa understand the need to adapt current practices to be more receptive to diversity and even take lessons from the West where applicable (Louw and Jackson 42). Thus, in a somewhat ironic way, South Africans, who are still experiencing the negative effects of colonization, can apply the more progressive attitudes toward diversity that have been largely adopted in Britain and the United States.

Conclusion

This paper examined the influence upon South Africa of two pervasive historical experiences—colonization and Apartheid—and looked at the way both continue to impact the country’s organizations today. Clearly, the experiences of both events significantly influence the organizations that are functioning in South Africa, in addition to individual citizens. The remnants of Apartheid and colonization influence both the leaders of organizations as well as the rank-and-file membership, whether these are employees in the private sector or in public government organizations. It is unavoidable that the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, including the region that became South Africa, would influence and ultimately shape the subsequent systems that developed there. This paper showed that colonialism continues to exert a greater negative influence on South African organizations than that exerted by Apartheid. Specifically, it was shown how the racial disparity of Apartheid is now being directly dealt with and reversed in South Africa and recognized as a negative stain on the past. However, the structure of organizations and style of management in South Africa continue to reflect colonial influences, and are often not viewed as problematic, in spite of the fact that Afrocentric styles could be much more effective in addressing the cultural leanings of society and helping the country move forward.

Using conflict theory as the basis, this paper examined the influence that colonial policies made (and continue to make) on society and management in South African organizations. The position taken by this paper does not imply that the negative effects of Apartheid are completely a thing of the past or that they are not serious. However, since all sides are at least talking about racial issues and taking specific actions to correct the atrocities of the past, South African organizations can be assessed as moving away from the negativity of Apartheid. In contrast, it is clear that the majority of organizations across the country continue to embrace many of the same colonial frameworks utilized by Western oppressors and that this prevents South Africa from moving forward on its own merit and based on its own cultural values.

Largely, the policies of colonialism promoted the types of class and ethnic distinctions that became so pervasive under Apartheid. In effect, Apartheid simply took the basic views held by the colonial powers and took them to an extreme level. Colonialism could not work unless the indigenous population were effectively controlled and placed in a position of inferiority to their more powerful rulers. This process naturally resulted in conflict between the rulers and the ruled, whether that conflict took the form of open hostility or not. The interactions between the elites and the workers under colonization, therefore, was an extreme example of the class distinction proposed by Marx in his development of conflict theory.

The colonial method for structuring every organization was based on a hierarchy of control and a centralized power source. This method remains one of the main organizational structures and is the basis for Eurocentric management practices. Certainly, there are cases where such an organizational style proves beneficial (for example, in the military), but it also limits the ability of workers or members of the organization to develop creative abilities or be innovative. This, in effect, thwarts progress in many ways and often results in organizational stagnation.

From this review, it is evident that the conflict generated by colonialism in South Africa has had a negative effect on the development of management and organizational principles and practices. Additionally, it has prevented South African leaders from effectively developing their own Afrocentric theories (perhaps based on Ubuntu) that are more in keeping with African culture and the society as a whole. Unconsciously, African leaders are allowing colonial policies—designed to limit or prevent altogether the intellectual progress of the population—to remain in effect throughout South African organizations. This practice should be changed and replaced by an Afrocentric focus, which will enable the country to live up to its potential.

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