Transformation is not (just) an agenda item

Shivani Ranchod

More than twenty years into South Africa’s democracy and we still struggle with what the notion of “transformation” means (never mind how to actually achieve transformation, a struggle on an entirely different scale). It is not entirely surprising given the nebulous and deeply personal nature of the issue. My understanding of transformation comes from my own sense of identity, and my own life experiences. I cannot speak for others, except perhaps to point out that which is clearly not transformation. Having a social responsibility committee where you delegate responsibility for transformation is not transformation. BEE is not transformation. Having “transformation” as an agenda item is not transformation. Whilst these regulatory and structural artefacts may aid and support transformation they cannot replace deep and meaningful change.

A dictionary definition of transformation (“a marked change in nature”, Oxford English Dictionary) is a useful place to start.

Let’s take UCT as an example.  Transformation at UCT is an issue close to my heart. I was a student at UCT in the late nineties, and spent ten years of my career there as an academic in the Commerce Faculty. I ran the Actuarial Science department for four years and held a variety of management positions within the Faculty. I was also a member of UCT’s senate (despite not being a member of the professoriate). I saw transformation as being at the core of my responsibilities and worked hard with colleagues to drive change. By the time I left UCT we had gotten to the point where the student intake in actuarial science far more closely resembled the race profile of the South African population than the profile of the actuarial profession (a low bar since the profession is 80% white and 80% male). More importantly: the graduating class was majority black. The extent of this change should not be underestimated. We were far ahead of other parts of the university despite having some of the highest entrance requirements. I cannot overstate the extent to which the student intake is heartbreakingly constrained by the inequities of our schooling system.

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But more important than race profile: did we achieve “a marked change in nature” of the actuarial programme? I believe we did. We changed the classroom culture to be a safer space and to encourage students to have a voice. We embedded local examples into our British curriculum. We re-designed our first year course to invert our curriculum[1]. Not exactly a full Africanisation but given the constraints of professional accreditation we did our best. We struggled to hire black academics – not surprising given the profile of the profession. But we used every opportunity we could to expose students to diverse models of what it means to be an actuary: guest lecturers, contact with recent alum, hiring of tutors. We worked closely with the Educational Development Unit at UCT headed by the trailblazing Dr June Pym to reduce the sense of otherness that students experience when entering the institution. Could we have done more? Absolutely.

So how then does deep institutional change happen? Painfully slowly is my guess. Some would argue that slowly is not an option and that a more radical approach is needed. I’m in the Madiba camp on this one – a sustainable future has to be built on an intrinsically compassionate approach. One that recognises our shared humanity and is driven forward by love.

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If there was a fool-proof recipe for transformation we would presumably have made more progress. At a minimum you need people within an institution that are committed to transformation. The leadership obviously, but also regular folk. Making progress requires a particular mindfulness – making sure there are no wasted opportunities. Whilst there are many leaders who don’t stand in the way of transformation, there are very few who actively drive transformation.

Regular folk play an essential role in enabling a conducive environment. My first job was at Sanlam. I was the only woman, the only English-speaking person and the only “person of colour” in my team. Ahem. I had a colleague who always gently shifted the lunchtime conversation back to English, befriended me and kept an eye out for me. He reduced my sense of otherness and made sure I had a voice. At UCT my masters supervisor (known for the highest standards of excellence and a certain ferocity) pushed me to present my research in public forums. In this (terrifying) way he allowed me to find my voice as an academic.

Institutions need safe spaces. Safe spaces allow people to express themselves authentically and allow people to disagree in a healthy way. Without disagreement culture doesn’t shift – people feel they have to assimilate. UCT might lag behind some other educational institutions, but it is far ahead of my personal experiences of corporate South Africa and the actuarial profession in this regard.

The profession still has a long road to walk. Discussions about transformation seldom extend beyond demographics. And there are so many missed opportunities to shift beyond transformation as an agenda to transformation living and breathing through an institution.

[1] International research shows that black and women students are more likely to remain engaged in a programme if they understand the problems that they will later be trying to solve. Qualifications like actuarial science, engineering and computer science often focus on developing technical skills first and practical applications later. The idea here is that you bring the applications forward and more closely integrate technical material and applications.

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