The property industry was jittery enough going into 2016. Then a little Durban bird tweeted the unthinkable, and thanks to her tenuous link with the property world, the industry was thrust under a spotlight. Penny Sparrow’s actions are inexcusable. But inadvertently she may have jumpstarted some essential – if uncomfortable – conversations about managing racism

January 2016 is not a month South Africans will easily forget. The lid blew off the pressure cooker and everybody was stunned, outraged, even bewildered, by what emerged. Our fracture lines deepened, or became more visible. The rainbow faded, all thanks to a single person’s racist tweet – a former estate agent who did not understand social media as being a global soap box, and who did not foresee the consequences of this irresponsible uttering.

Penny Sparrow has a great deal to answer for, but ironically, most would agree, she’s inadvertently sparked something long overdue. Whether within the property industry or outside it, many have been stopped in their tracks and moved towards some brutally honest introspection and authentic conversations – by choice, and at the encouragement of principals in the industry.

The property industry responded as one to the racist tweet and stressed zero tolerance in words and deeds. In his emotive letter to Real Estate Business Owners of South Africa (REBOSA) members, chief executive Jan le Roux acknowledged that the real estate industry had been tarnished. “These public comments are not only damaging and highly insulting, but have invoked painful memories for many South Africans,” he wrote.

 

“The social attitudes and behaviour of agents are constantly under the microscope. We need to understand this responsibility and respect all people that we interact with” Jan le Roux, REBOSA

 

DISCRIMINATION STOPS WITH ME

Le Roux described a roll-out of communication strategies, calling on the industry to sign the new REBOSA Equality Pledge: Discrimination Stops With Me – a list of commitments designed to remove racism and discrimination from the property trade. He clarified: “As the power of our industry has unlimited reach, we have a unique opportunity to drive change, bring people together and spread the message of respect and understanding.”

As Le Roux pointed out, the social attitudes and behaviour of agents are constantly under the microscope. They need to understand this responsibility and respect all people they interact with.

One of the biggest challenges is to sustain momentum to effectively flip the incident, viewing it as a catalyst for authentic change. Amanda Cuba, Z Capital Properties board member and 45% shareholder in RE/MAX Southern Africa, agrees on the value of introspection. However she cautions against “expending our energy solely on the fact that somebody made a racist slur”.

Cuba suggests we should rather talk about “how we behave on a day-to-day basis towards one another – whether it’s towards a client who walks into the office, or the man in the street. We need to spend more time having the positive instead of negative conversations”.

And conversations are critical, because by their very nature, they involve listening. Authentic, sensitive interaction between people of different colours and cultures is key to discovering each other’s realities. As an estate agent, respect for a client is non-negotiable. And respect is a good starting point, if we are to build a non-racial country, however long that may take.

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DEFINING RACISM

Rejane Williams of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies believes many South Africans are confused about what constitutes a racist or racism. She defines a racist as “somebody who believes, ideologically, that black people or any people of a different race are inferior”.

“If you consider yourself superior, you live with a sense of entitlement,” she adds. “You’ve learned to live with dominance, privilege, greater self-esteem and expectations, as if this is the natural social order – a God-given, naturally assigned right to your beliefs, values, practices, wants and needs.”

In contrast, she adds that “those regarded as inferior, live the reality of being second-class citizens, taught and expected to be of service, to lower their expectations and to accept their lower station in life”.

One thing is certain, racial attitudes cannot be flipped like a light switch. There are so many obstacles, so many painful memories, and according to Williams, so many entrenched stereotypes.

“As a nation, we still carry a deep concern about the real nature of race relations, and continue to be alarmed by these public eruptions.

“We have to begin to take responsibility for the whole problem, not only the ways in which we are individually impacted. We must have the renewed energy to continue to address racism and the psychosocial and material consequences associated not only with oppression, poverty, inequality and marginalisation, but with dominance and privilege.”

HOW TO SQUASH IT

The Centre for Diversity Studies advocates a curriculum that encompasses diversity literacy as part of the school, tertiary and workplace education so that, as a nation, we become better able to deal with issues of race and related concerns.

Combating racism can take many forms, including punishment for those who act in a racist manner, and initiatives to prevent it from happening in the first place. Most importantly, perhaps, we should each take personal responsibility for contributing to authentic and positive nation-building.

ANTI-DISCRIMINATION DIRECTIVES

Of recent events, CEO of the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) Bryan Chaplog says: “There’s little doubt the EAAB has a substantial role to play in dealing severely with acts of racism within its regulated sector, and of implementing appropriate supporting initiatives that will prevent racism from occurring within the sector in the first place.”

The EAAB put out an extensive, hard-hitting directive to the industry – and the country – detailing its resolve to institute appropriate strategies and programmes aimed at eliminating racism within the sector.

Andrew Golding, CEO of Pam Golding Property Group, is a founding signatory to the REBOSA Pledge, which clearly states the zero-tolerance approach to discrimination at each of its offices nationally and internationally.

“The Pam Golding Property Group is fundamentally committed to transformation at every level of the business. We acknowledge that the task will not be complete until the business is completely transformed at every level,” says Golding.

Trish Luthuli, new business executive for the group in Gauteng, agrees. “Racism affects all South Africans who are committed to the creation of positive and healthy communities. It is not a real-estate issue, it is a human issue.”

NO ROOM FOR RACISM

Also a signatory to the REBOSA charter is Seeff chairman Samuel Seeff. “The Seeff values are integrity, passion, experience, excellence, creativity and family, and we live this not only as individuals, but as an organisation. There is no room for anyone who is racist or not committed to our brand, our clients, to South Africa and all its people,” he says.

Seeff says the brand has always been committed to transformation and inclusion, and that the company was one of the first to support that in the industry.

“We are always looking at ways to attract more BEE candidates, but it’s always been a challenge. There are huge opportunities in property, but most people are discouraged by the commission-driven nature of the industry. While many previously disadvantaged candidates have entered the profession and are successful, just as many have unfortunately failed, realising this is not a profession for wage-earners.

“One of the biggest industry challenges is in attracting young people, especially graduates,for whom it could be a rewarding career.

“Young people, too, are often under the impression that estate agents earn huge commissions for very little eff ort. Yet according to REBOSA, about 90% of estate agents (all new entrants) fail within the first year because they are not suited to the profession; nor do they grasp what it takes to succeed. Having said this, learnerships are helping real estate businesses attract more BEE candidates.”

TRADING WITH CONDITIONS

RE/MAX Southern Africa’s property journey began only after 1994 – the American brand refused to allow a single franchise on South African soil until such time as free and fair elections were held.

As CEO Adrian Goslett says, “Our history is tied very tightly to a transformation period in South Africa. From an ethos perspective, our brand pitched itself at serving markets from R30,000 to R30m – clichéd, perhaps, but we are ‘the brand for the people’. We wanted to appeal to everybody, and because we operated everywhere, our transformation happened naturally over a 20-year period. We seek out individuals of any background, who have the right attitude and are willing to be in the real estate industry – individuals who are looking for a brand to assist them, and whose values align with ours.”

Goslett feels the change in shareholding and BEE partners took place not because it was legislated or “the right thing to do” but because they found the perfect partners. “Amanda and Yolanda saw value in what we had to offer and this appreciation was reciprocated,” he says.

Racism is the proverbial elephant in South Africa’s room, one that Penny Sparrow set off on a stampede, trumpeting loudly. Our captains of industry are taking a stand and are calling – insisting – that we listen to the trumpet, self-interrogate and act on new knowledge gained. Each of us has great reach, therefore power, to effect change.

Goslett summarises the challenge: “Home ownership is a facilitator to so much more than just bricks and mortar – access to education finance, capital growth, pride, self-worth – things that many of us take for granted, but that are afforded to so few,” he says. “You have the awesome opportunity to positively impact and improve the lives of so many people every single day. Many of us were fortunate enough to start the journey further down the road than others, but how we’ve responded since then through our personal choices, has shaped us. What choices will you make in 2016?”

 

“The inclusion in the proposed Property Practitioner’s Bill of a provision entirely outlawing racism and discrimination within the regulated sector is certainly within the realms of possibility” Bryan Chaplog, EAAB

 

CONTACT DETAILS

The REBOSA Pledge: www.rebosa.co.za/pledge/
The EAAB’S full statement: www.eaab.org.za/
Rejane Williams: www.wits.ac.za/wicds/

Words: Anne Schauffer