South Africa celebrated 28 years of democracy this year, but the country is still reeling from the aftermath of apartheid. One of the most visible manifestations of this is the racial segregation that persists in many parts of the country, including its institutions of higher learning.

In response to the protests at Stellenbosch University against the incident of a young white South African student urinating on another South African student of colour’s possessions, the institution’s vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, appointed a commission to investigate the extent of racism on campus and to make recommendations for addressing it.

As change management and conflict resolution specialists, we believe that the key to addressing racial conflict requires a deep cultural shift within the university. True transformation will only occur when the university adopts change management principles to address areas of diversity, inclusivity, and change agility.

Dealing With Racial-Based Conflict Using a Change Management Approach

Understanding Lewin’s Change Management Model

Change management is a process that helps organisations transition from one state to another. According to Kurt Lewin, there are three steps in the change management process: Unfreeze, Change, and Refreeze. The Lewin approach assumes that people are always at the root of the change and is one of the leading models of change management used to date.

The Lewin’s Change Model Overview

1. Unfreezing

The first stage of change management involves creating the conditions necessary for transformation to happen. Before building a new structure, you must dismantle the old one. To move forward, we must first acknowledge and challenge the earlier behaviours, rules, and mental models that have contributed to the current condition. It is important to identify any restraining forces that might show up in the current environment and use different approaches to reduce resistance  that  might contribute to the areas of conflict.  

Determining the relevant origins of conflict can be done via facilitated consultation and conducting a root cause analysis that can assist in identifying the root causes of the problems or conflicts that arise. A relevant approach can then be proposed in how to respond to the conflict by identifying the type of conflict by our conflict analysis tool. 

When we look at the incident of racism at Stellenbosch University, the complexity of this issue lies in the fact that various types of conflict might be evident. These could include: structure-, information-, values-, relationship- and interest-based conflict. The intensity of the conflict could be informed by three distinct types conflict, i.e. values-, structural-, and information conflict.  

The values of the university has a significant impact on how the institution shows up as a beacon of human development in society. Included in its list of values are “accountability and integrity”, as well as “human dignity and respect”. The act of urinating on personal belongings of another is in itself a direct violation of the university’s stated values. Although the university has intended to deal with the racial conflict fairly swiftly, it does bring about questions regarding how these values are being represented within the culture of the university especially in terms of human dignity and respect. Whether it needs to enforce its code of conduct more prominently and unilaterally, or have more open dialogue interventions for students and staff that align with the university’s values, is worth exploring more proactively. 

Structurally, the perception of the university has remained historically and predominantly “white” and Afrikaans. When looking at the enrolment statistics of Stellenbosch University in 2018, the largest percentage of 58.1% of students enrolled were white. Among staff, the university recorded a growth to 40.97 % of people of colour in 2015. Although the institution has identified the need for a greater sense of diversity and inclusion, its structure has an impact on the kind of culture that is perpetuated within the university itself. If there is inequality in the institution’s demographics, this means that it needs to have a deeper look at what needs to change in its criteria of enrolment for both students and staff.

Social Media has a plethora of data and digital content that vividly illustrates the human response to change and widespread change in local and global society. These platforms have been extensively used to create awareness and garner overwhelming support amongst the youth against systemic issues like racism. Yet, it has also thrusted opposing perspectives to change and inclusivity into the limelight. By looking at the data presented in this space, we can identify how great the need and desire for real change and transformation is in society and what that potentially could look like, purely by assessing the percentage of people calling for it and their views thereof via online comments and likes.

2. Changing

The second stage of Lewin’s approach to change management is about rebuilding new structures to support the desired organisational change. As part of designing a change management process for an institution such as Stellenbosch University, these are some of the interventions based on the above types of conflicts that could be incorporated in driving the desired change.

A few key elements to consider during this stage:

  • Community facilitation and Mediation. When relationships are strained, it’s helpful to bring in an impartial third-party mediator like RACS to help create a safe platform for honest and open dialogue to take place. In doing so, entrenched parties begin to identify where their perspectives align and shift towards being open to and potentially building a better partnership rather than driving opposition further. Mediation can be used when the two parties, for example the students directly involved, are both willing to enter into dialogue with one another in order for facilitated reconciliation to take place.
  • Cohesion workshops. We’ve found that workshops at a structural level are a helpful way to build cohesion and trust within a team. In cases like the racial incident at Stellenbosch University, workshops with staff and students can help employees process their experiences, develop a shared understanding of the conflict and work together more effectively to build a new constructive system for managing conflict and change.  
  • Cultural change. To achieve true transformation, it is essential to address the underlying culture that has contributed to the conflict. This might involve rethinking the organisation’s values, changing policies and practices, or increasing diversity and inclusion initiatives that align with the overall or societal collective vision and values.
  • Capacity development. Building the ability for employees to manage conflict can help prevent future incidents. This might involve training on conflict management, with staff members in dealing with conflicts that arise amongst themselves and with students. The importance of developing emotional intelligence and awareness of self and others is a key aspect in building capacity and shifting behaviour amongst students. Capacitating staff members is crucial as it can assist in developing mechanisms that supports and drive the change.  Leadership capacity development is crucial in terms of driving and leading change processes based on a diverse and shared vision for the future of the institution.

Change is never easy, but with the right strategy, it is possible to create lasting transformation in the organization.

3. Refreezing

The final stage of Lewin’s approach is about (reinforcing) merging the new structures and habits that emerge from discussions during the change process. Our years of facilitating change management processes have taught us that this stage is as crucial as the other two (i.e. Unfreezing and Change) for resolving racial conflict.

The following principles can help institutions like the Stellenbosch University with this:

  • Cultivate effective support systems for those experiencing racism. This might involve creating an employee resource group for minority staff, implementing an anti-racism policy, or disciplinary intervention for racist behaviour. 
  • Implementing new conflict resolution processes. Formal and informal conflict resolution processes headed by university staff and faculty can help employees resolve differences and prevent minor disagreements from escalating into major conflicts. Part of the process could include developing an early warning system that identifies recurring conflicts that emerge within the workspace and overall institution. Depending on the kind of conflict, for example structural, workshops and open dialogue interventions amongst the staff can follow. 
  • Review and revise as needed. The change process is rarely linear, and it’s important to be flexible and adaptable as new challenges and obstacles arise. If there is a great demand for policy change or more visible proactiveness in dealing with racism, leadership needs to collectively come together and assess whether their current policies are in line with the composition of the South African democracy and develop new ones if necessary.

It’s critical to personalize the procedure to the organisation’s demands to ensure that it goes smoothly.

Ensure the Culture Shifts

With conflicts such as this, it draws attention to the fact that our democracy has not developed nor adequately implemented proper change management processes to facilitate real transformation within our society. As a result of this, historical structures of racism have remained in place and have become part of the fabric of our modern society.

Despite this, it’s crucial to remember that changing the culture is a long-term process and there is a real call for change from our youth. To effect this, it will take time, effort, and commitment on all levels to create lasting change.As we’ve partnered with many institutions before, RACS has offered a range of services to support institutions undergoing culture change. Change is the only constant and we recognise that is an inevitable part of human development. Change can be uncomfortable, but with the effective tools for dealing with change both individually and organisationally, sustainable transformation can be achieved.  Contact us today to learn more.

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