A study by Valerie Tapela examines the plight of black professionals in Cape Town, recognising that a city that is not representative of the country demographics will not be economically sustainable.

Tapela is an MPhil in Coaching Management alumnus of the University of Stellenbosch Business School and her findings echoed similar research that found the percentage of black African professionals in Cape Town has increased by a mere 4% over the past 10 years.

Her study, involving a number of HR managers and black African professionals who  had relocated to Cape Town, uncovers that the main reason for this slow growth is that professionals, especially black African executives, who migrate to big organisations with complex racial and cultural diversity, feel unwelcome and don’t stick around.

Tapela, a Personal Development Facilitator and Researcher who currently assists organisations and individuals in retaining and attracting black African professionals, says organisations in South Africa are transforming towards a diverse staff complement and many professionals struggle to adapt to these culturally diverse environments. Likewise, companies struggle to hold onto black African executives.

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“Often, disillusioned relocators tell grim tales of how tough the Mother City can be. The apartheid history of the labour force and its discriminatory effects continue to be a talking point in different circles. There is a sense of ‘otherness’ that black professionals feel when they work and live in Cape Town. The city is seen as stuck in the ways of the Old Work Order, where the environment lacks energy and racial discrimination is still apparent,” she says.

She says there are numerous factors which inhibit the progression of black executives in their career.

“Barriers include lack of experience and limited access to mentorship, the hostility of the environment, negative stereotyping, the sense of isolation, and exclusion from a Eurocentric organisational culture. A common theme found of negative stereotyping in which the skills of black professionals to contribute to the workplace are tested, amounted to the unspoken pressure to see whether they have the capability to perform and which they felt their white counterparts are not subjected to,” she says.

She points out that social and racial identity, particularly in post-apartheid South Africa, influences self-categorisation and self-concept.

“Individuals tend to classify themselves and others into social categories and these classifications have a significant effect on human interactions. In SA, societal changes are still being dictated by or bound within racial categories. To think that social identity issues in organisations are not there or that they will ever be done away with completely, would be naive.”

Tapela says that it’s important to explore ways to embrace the diversity opportunities in South Africa, especially to improve retention of black talent, but also for organisations to build inclusive and enabling environments where people of all backgrounds experience a sense of belonging, with no one culture dominating the other.

Tapela says her research was limited to black African professionals and the interviews were conducted with professionals who are currently working in Cape Town or had relocated to the city not less than six months previously.

Her research came off the back of studies carried out by the University of Cape Town and Accelerate Cape Town, which spoke of black professionals feeling unwelcome and alienated.

“The intent of my research was to move the conversation from the description of experiences to what can be done. Coaching as a tool had been suggested as a strategic contributor to attracting and retaining black professionals. This study was about the merits of that,” she says.

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She spoke to professionals who had worked in both Johannesburg and London and made comparisons. She indicates that her interviewees were not originally from Cape Town, but had started elsewhere.

“Even those from London felt that they didn’t struggle as much as they did here. The reflection was that perhaps in London, they were clear about their ‘foreign-ness’. They knew that they were the ‘other’, that they were in a new country. Juxtapose that with Cape Town – it felt like they were not in their own country, they were not in an African country. Part of it, I guess, is the disappointment and lack of preparation for the alienation they then experience,” she says.

Asked what could have been pushing black professionals out of the city, she says cultural fit, expensive lifestyle and limited choices in terms of career growth. She explains that her interviewees spoke of white, Eurocentric culture, rules and standard that they felt was a deciding factor socially and in the corporate environment.

“Corporate culture is not inclusive enough. Some spoke about emails being written in Afrikaans, being a lone voice in a hostile environment and generally not enough black professionals or role models in the environment. No place in the organisation to express their lived experiences, no support for the black pressure that is felt. Constantly feeling like one’s competence and skills are in doubt, while their white counterparts were not necessarily being subjected to the same,” she says.

She believes that coaching can provide the space to make people aware of the multiple identities that they operate under and reflect on how those might be influencing behaviours and choices.

She says, however, that coaching should not be singled out as the only contributor but rather, as part of a collective support offered to the professional.

“From a holistic point of view, the relocating organisation can proactively assist by providing support to individuals to not only network with other industry-related professionals, but also encourage these professionals to engage with groups suited to their personal interests.”

Tapela suggests the following practical tips for organisations, coaches and individuals:

1. Plan it. Don’t be reactive. Individuals should plan the coaching process strategically to facilitate their relocation and adjustment process. Put social adjustment on the coaching agenda.

2. Develop sensitivity and awareness. Coaches should assist organisations in developing cultural sensitivity and cultural intelligence, constructing actual strategies and actions for how to navigate differences.

3. Who am I? Coaches, as well as leaders in organisations, need to reflect on their own social and racial identity to expand their own awareness, creating a safe space for individuals to reflect deeply and to arrive into an environment of belonging and culturally intelligent teams.

4. Talk about it. Sensitise staff and managers within the relocating organisation of the cross-cultural complexities and diversity factors to encourage issues to be named.

5. Ask for help. Professionals need to take full ownership of the coaching process and request support before the actual relocation.

6. Lead from within. Professionals need to plan how to develop their own unique leadership style, which will reflect their own cultural strengths and capital. They also need to incorporate other cultures’ successes into their own leadership style, while staying true to who they are.