Developing an inclusive culture at South Africa’s research institutions

For Black communities in today’s South Africa, the legacies of colonialism and apartheid still prevail, shaping social structure and limiting access to opportunities. Colonialism displaced Black South Africans from the mid-seventeenth century, eroding cultural and social systems.

From the 1950s, apartheid legalized systematic racial discrimination against disenfranchised, mainly Black people. It limited their economic opportunities and social standing, prescribing an inferior education system to deliberately shape a poor quality of life. The policy fuelled systemic sexism, sexual-orientation discrimination, ageism, and the use of ethnicity as a divide-and-conquer strategy.

Seventy years later, even after more than 25 years of democracy following the end of apartheid in 1994, schools and suburbs are still predominantly segregated, with government funding unevenly allocated in terms of facilities and quality of education.

As three past and present employees of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), a conservation organization founded in 2004 to manage the country’s biodiversity resources, we have been advocating for a culture of treating others in the way we want to be treated: by applying universal shared human values, redefining institutional culture and systems to be inclusive, and opening safe spaces for a diversity of ideas. We have proposed a ground-up ap.

Mentorship that thrives
Institutional culture needs to enable successful mentoring by creating a safe space. For example, SANBI’s mentoring programme for interns, students and early-career scientists involves quarterly meetings between them and dedicated human-resources staff — check-ins that provide a space to engage with programme coordinators without early-career researchers’ supervisors being present. In addition to sharing feedback on institutional policies and procedures, early-career scientists have the opportunity to discuss challenges they might face because of their supervisor or work placement. When issues are identified early, transfers or exchanges between work programmes can be arranged.

Institutions should recruit outside of their walls, if necessary, to ensure that appropriately skilled mentors are paired with early-career researchers. For mentorship to thrive, institutions must also create an enabling environment. In non-supportive environments, staff — particularly those from under-represented groups — who remain inadequately skilled and work without guidance become frustrated. Some can even feel they don’t belong because they see themselves as lagging behind their peers.

Institutions often focus too strongly on outputs — such as publications, products or technologies — at the expense of reflecting on the values that uphold the institution. These values might be outdated and out of touch with those of staff, or with those held by partners, stakeholders or society at large. If staff cannot relate to the institutional culture and systems, job satisfaction and retention rates can suffer.

Fostering safe spaces
Through our engagements with each other, we have discovered a set of shared values, aligned with those of our institution, and have set out to establish a space to build our vision of a supportive, safe environment based on these values. Safe spaces are required for expressing controversial or uncomfortable views and to do the hard work of finding solutions to inequities. Confidentiality and trust cultivate such safe spaces, which can be created initially in small groups, then expanded to constructive formal or informal spaces. The conversations and suggestions of informal discussion groups about staff development and transformation can be elevated to management for implementation. Safe spaces are a necessity for institutions that wish to truly address their legacies of racism and colonialism. Policies alone will not create these spaces — they require dedicated staff, too. Such spaces should ensure that those who speak up can do so without fear of being labelled as troublemakers or victimized.

As a first step in pursuing this vision, we met with the senior teams at our organization to share ideas around the need for and benefits of an inclusive culture. We highlighted that inclusivity improves work–life balance, productivity and mental well-being for all employees.

Any change, transformative or otherwise, is a process that takes perseverance, patience and determination. For any individual scientist to grow and flourish, they need a supportive environment, rich mentorship, a safe space and an enabling culture. It’s time for those factors to apply to all scientists equitably, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity or tribe. By fostering this mindset, we aim to reframe the narrative of our history and, in doing so, give all South African scientists their chance to thrive.
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Organizations often need to delve deep into culture in order to ensure a diverse and represented workplace. What can organizations do in order to improve intercultural communication?. In your answer, discuss ways in which SANBI can improve their intercultural communication in South Africa. (30)

Suppose that you are appointed as the Communication Manager for SANBI. You have been tasked with resolving any barriers to effective intercultural communication that may arise. Critically evaluate potential barriers that SANBI may experience that could affect its intercultural communication, and list ways in which you will prevent these barriers from happening. (30)

South Africa has one of the highest number of official languages in the world. How do you think language affects culture in South Africa?. In your answer, critically discuss the importance of language in communication.

Answers to Above Questions on Business Communication

Answer 1: 

Intercultural communication is an important requirement for businesses to consider in order to manage their business in an effective way because it is important for businesses to go global in order to leverage the growth opportunities available. This exposes them to diverse cultural environment, and it is therefore important to manage culturally diverse employees in order to efficiently manage the global operations. There are different ways in which organisations can improve intercultural communication, and the given case scenario of SANBI can also utilise these methods in order to improve the intercultural communication in South Africa.

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