Does the rise of black PhD graduates in South Africa translate to the visibility of these professionals in the workplace? Although for the past few years, graduation halls across the country have recognised the academic excellence of numerous black graduates, the same has not translated in the workplace. While many may think that the achievement of academic excellence would earn you respect and equal opportunity, the experience of many black professionals has proven otherwise. Instead, the reality of the Black professional in the workplace is one of alienation, lack of progress and disregard. Which begs the question, is transformation in South Africa a cosmetic exercise?
In an article titled: South Africa has tripled its black science PhD graduates over the last decade by Sarah Wild, she states that in 2015, almost half of the country's PhD graduates were black and 36% were white. According to the South African Science and Technology Innovation Indicators of 2016, black PhD graduates outperformed their white counterparts by 7.21% in 2015. Additionally, the percentage of female researchers in STI increased from 34.7% in 2001 to 44.1% in 2015, thus indicating an improvement towards creating a gender and racially inclusive industry. However, despite the increasing number of black PhD graduates in science related fields, the continued group discussions among Black professionals on the "invisible black professional" in the workplace is perhaps evidence of how the national outlook on transformation has been more cosmetic as opposed to being structural.
In 2000, Mail and Guardian published an article by a senior researcher, Wiseman Magesela where he described the experience of black professionals in the working environment as: "…a daily struggle against a system that alienates you, aiming to exclude you and side line you." In 2016, Molifi Tshabalala wrote a profound article titled: "Dear black South African professionals" -a call to all black professionals that have crossed the barrier line to influence the workplace towards a more transformed, diverse and representative environment. In July 2018, black professionals met in Cape Town for a panel discussion themed "The Business of Being Black" was held to challenge the ideology of black people who find themselves in alienating workspaces and to suggest solutions on how corporate South Africa can be more transformative. Former Minister Science and Technology, Dr. Mosibidi Mangena while speaking at the 2017 BSTEP gala dinner put it best with an anecdote of a black academic who relayed to him that she had a feeling her white colleagues on her campus do not see her; it was as if she is invisible or non-existent. This reflects a real but subtle experience for many black professionals.
The common thread that runs through each of these accounts proves the challenging realities of the average black professional - which not only affects the field of Science Technology and Innovation (STI) but, cuts across all disciplines. It is for this reason that the Black Science Technology and Engineering Professionals (BSTEP) organisation continues to champion the representation of black professionals in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) for the purpose of professional advancement. It is therefore our duty to be aware and understand these complex issues experienced by black professionals in the field of science and how each of them breeds a counter-productive, vicious cycle that lowers the chances of upward mobility of black science professionals
Since inception, BSTEP has achieved a number of notable achievements. In 2017, BSTEP hosted its first annual Black Excellence Gala Dinner – a first of its kind. Over the years, the science space has continually side-lined black excellence and as a result, has failed to acknowledge the sterling work and achievements of black South African science professionals. This unfortunately has led to a very obscure perception that suggests that science is for everyone else but, black people. BSTEP seeks to change that narrative by honouring black professionals who for many years have used their skill to contribute positively in the development of science in communities, academia and industry.By doing this annually, we hope to remind young professionals in SET, black students wanting to pursue a career in science and learners residing in rural and peri-urban areas that black excellence exist.
The organisation also takes its advocacy initiatives very seriously. In the past year to date, they have had several engagements with industry and the government. The purpose of such engagement is to among other things expose industry to a network of black scientists, engineers and technologist to establish synergies in an aspirational and inclusive economic development.
Mr. Mpho Madisha- Chairperson – BSTEP
Contact: 071 869 5749