It was both disheartening and encouraging to see the heartfelt, brave article by investment professional Tinyiko Ngwenya making waves in local media after she published it on her LinkedIn account. It was encouraging because it brought an important issue into the public domain and demands attention and honest engagement with an uncomfortable subject.
It is disheartening because it is a known, long-standing issue in corporate Cape Town, which has not been actively addressed, and which results in a sense of alienation for young black professionals who feel unwelcome in the Mother City.

This is a complex and multifaceted challenge, informed more by anecdotal than empirical evidence. The evidence can nevertheless no longer be ignored. Cape Town is experiencing an exodus of black talent and it costs regional corporates a fortune to keep importing black talent and offering above-market salaries in the hope of retaining the employees, only to have them relocate North after a year or two.

This is an emotive topic and we should be cautious to engage with our heads and not our hearts as this issue has the potential to drive even greater division and racial antagonism rather than much-needed unity in Cape Town. Some responses to Tinyiko’s article are embarrassingly simplistic and unfair in their portrayal of Cape Town, citing comparative statistics with Johannesburg that ignore the regional demographic context.

The primary factor underpinning racial antagonism in Cape Town has been the abject failure to redress apartheid spatial planning. The spatial architecture designed by the apartheid regime is still very much in effect in this city. As a result, most communities remain racially and culturally homogeneous with very little integration. Black and coloured communities continue to fight over scraps of land on the Cape Flats while affluent suburbs remain predominantly white. Even recent upgrades to much-needed public transport infrastructure have prioritised the Atlantic Seaboard while residents of the Cape Flats battle with dysfunctional trains, striking buses, and taxi wars.

Black professionals in Cape Town experience pervasive challenges, the biggest being the difficulty in building social capital. The importance of solid business networks is well known, and with young talent, the ability to integrate socially into a new city is equally important. Given that there has been little integration across racial and cultural groups, and that young black people generally are not made to feel welcome in predominantly white upmarket locations, where does a young black professional go after hours to socialise and meet new peers?

Capetonians tend to inadvertently display a cultural insensitivity that is often perceived as hostile. Use of language and culturally biased displays are classic examples of this; with meetings often conducted in Afrikaans, an expectation that colleagues are au fait with rugby, and the constant narrative that Cape Town is the best city in the country. There’s nothing wrong with speaking Afrikaans, enjoying rugby, or having pride in your home city, but this naturally leads to a sense of alienation among black professionals who have moved to Cape Town, particularly if they are also deprived of networking opportunities to meet kindred spirits that share their interests or speak their language.

Tinyiko’s challenge with diversity of languages cannot be rectified in the short term. South Africa has 11 official languages that are widely dispersed across the country because of historical migratory patterns. Cape Town’s demographic structure is unique, given our geographic location at the tip of Africa, and it is somewhat unfair to expect this city to display the diversity of languages and cultures of Johannesburg. It is similarly unfair to expect companies to match a national demographic target with respect to staff in Cape Town. The desire to do just that has led to an unfortunate situation where Cape companies spend a fortune ‘importing’ African black talent, while local coloured talent remains largely unemployed. Cape Town has a coloured population that makes up 50% of this city and perhaps our attempts at greater transformation need to start by making local citizens feel included before we rush to import employees to meet national targets.

Still, not all challenges young employees experience are related to racial or cultural issues. Many corporates have their headquarters in Johannesburg with a regional office in Cape Town. This means that for many professionals in a specific stream, a move to HQ is inevitable if they hope for significant career growth in their field of expertise, as a regional office cannot accommodate their career progression. Generational issues have also started emerging, with millennials often holding unrealistic expectations with respect to the pace of their career progression — when these expectations are not met due to a general economic slowdown, it is easy to assume it’s because of racial discrimination.

Lack of transformation — for black or coloured talent — is nevertheless a serious problem in Cape Town. Companies need to take seriously, and deal decisively with, perceived and actual racial discrimination. We need to implement workplace programmes that teach far higher levels of cultural intelligence at all levels of the organisation, and particularly within HR and recruitment. We need to look more closely at recruitment practice and the unconscious cultural bias recruiters can display. Recent research has revealed that the most important factor determining employment of graduates in Cape Town is the depth and extent of their social network. If black professionals are not afforded an opportunity to build social capital, they will continue to be massively disadvantaged in this region. Most importantly, we need to continue the conversation and create spaces to discuss this issue in an honest and robust manner.

Ryan Ravens is chief executive officer of Accelerate Cape Town, a business leadership organisation representing top-tier corporate business in Cape Town