Mondelez International's Cebile Xulu tells the truth about transformation


The company's HR Director for South & Central East Africa gives an account of why she believes SA still has a long way to go before achieving true transformation. 

The fact that we still see the “first black” to be this or that, or the “only black woman” on this or that board, almost 24 years into democracy, should be hugely concerning. I understand that we are not the only country where black people, and black women, in particular, have been previously marginalised and that, in advanced democracies such as the US, issues of black and women empowerment are still hot topics. However, I do not believe that we are doing enough at the macro level to create and enforce sound policies addressing issues of transformation in our country.

"The lack of drastic transformation policies has far-reaching consequences for the economy in many respects. One of my fundamental concerns is the continued shortage of skilled black women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) professions. Although there are women excelling in these fields, the reality is that the country is not producing enough of them."


A further concern is that women are checking out of formal employment in some critical areas due to some very hostile corporate cultures. The environment is still largely unwilling to accept black women. Without making sweeping generalisations – because there are certainly examples of great leadership in this country – many corporate boardrooms are still beacons of white supremacy presided over by resistant white men. I have to mention that my own career growth has been supported to a large extent by some great white men, who have looked beyond the colour of my skin and gender, but the reality is that there are simply not enough of them and this is the issue we have to address.

In my observation, some of the white men in top leadership positions in corporate South Africa have grown up seeing a black woman typically as a maid in their homes. I can only imagine that it is is quite challenging for these men to now relate to a black woman as an equal or, even worse, as a boss. I was raised in Greytown, KwaZulu-Natal by my grandmother, who was a strong black woman that worked for a white family her entire life. Hearing her refer to children younger than I as “klein baas” or “young master” was extremely painful, because I knew what a powerhouse she was in the community. Today, some of those “klein base” and “young masters” sit in corporate boardrooms and refuse to accept that Mirriet’s grandchildren are now their equals.

I coach many young professionals, most of whom are black females, and almost all of them have a horror story to share about being undermined by the white males that they manage. In fact, this seems to be a general issue that they come across when working with men of all races, across all levels. 

Taking instruction

I have personal experiences of men feeling uncomfortable with my position of authority over them. I once had a weird experience with a very senior manager in one of the companies I previously worked for. He had been demoted from his role in another function, while I needed someone with his skills in my department and I thought this gentleman would be an asset to my team. We had had a fantastic relationship when he was a senior production manager – despite the fact that I was his superior. However, when he had to report directly to me, things changed dramatically. I still thought he was great, but he resigned four months later. In his exit interview, he told me he had struggled very much with reporting to a young, black woman. 

He said: “You were very nice and kind to me, but I just could not handle taking instructions from you. You see in my years of working, I have never had to answer to a black woman and I now don’t know how to deal with it without damaging our friendship and getting fired.”

Of course, there couldn’t be a friendship after that, but I do not hold anything against him. This interaction made me realise that some people don’t necessarily have bad intentions. Some of them simply don’t know how to handle such situations. We sometimes have to bring them along on the journey and not adopt a get-with-the-programme approach in all instances. 

I must mention that women have their own problems with each other, but being undermined by female direct reports or team members is seldom an issue, at least in the stories I hear and in my own experience.

Armchair activism 

Black people themselves are also at fault, because we seem to not be able to take on the responsibility of helping others reach their potential once we have become successful. We need to learn to pull others up and not suddenly forget about our communities. Personally, I think that as HR leaders we have a bigger responsibility to the people of South Africa when it comes to issues of transformation. 

We also have to remove as many obstacles as possible for those coming after us, just as those who came before us laid down their lives for our freedom. We have to create solid ladders that our young people can climb. I feel like this is a huge gap, particularly among black professionals. We are the Twitter generation that practises armchair activism, but seldom gets up and takes action.

"I believe that, if at the end of my career I look back and I cannot say, ‘so-and-so has reached their potential and I absolutely played a role in helping him/her overcome some of the challenges that they went through,’ I would have failed myself terribly."

This is why I do the unpaid coaching work that I do. I do not believe that there is a single successful person in this country that has made it solely on his or her own. There will always have been someone somewhere that held their hand and showed them how things work. Someone has opened doors, created connections to their networks, provided finding or has simply been a sounding board. 

Stupidly courageous

I have certainly been fortunate to have men and women that showed me the ropes, coached, mentored and sponsored me throughout my career. When I reflect on the state of the current crop of youth, in particular, the essence of the #FeesMustFall and other protests, I remember that I too was once young and stupidly courageous. It was my mentors who guided me through life. The raw talent of those students needs to be nurtured and allowed to flourish by those who have walked the path. This is where our future leaders will come from.

I was raised in what I now understand to be black consciousness, and I followed that path at university – which made me quietly radical (if there is such a thing). It still makes my blood boil when I see that black and other disadvantaged/marginalised people are being treated unfairly or there are injustices towards them, but coaching and mentorship have been key in channelling my anger towards constructive engagement and positive solutions. I feel this is a role many of us need to play in the lives of young black people in this country.

Window dressing 

I have heard many people speak passionately about transformation, but I have seen very little in terms of results, particularly when it comes to the top structures of corporate South Africa. I don’t need to quote statistics – just look at the report published by the Commission for Employment Equity. Transformation is simply a box-ticking exercise in many organisations. I often hear people say that “transformation should not be about compliance, but should make business sense”. I then ask myself: why we are not seeing change because transformation (specifically with regards to diversity and B-BBEE) does make business sense. Why is it that we still have organisations that refuse to transform? Why are so many corporates window dressing? Surely, all organisations want what’s best for business? 

Corporate South Africa presents a very interesting quagmire for HR professionals. On one hand, you have phenomenal leaders who go beyond the legislative prescripts to effect real transformation, while, on the other, you find leaders who would rather budget for Employment Equity Act penalties than transform. There are leaders who are deliberate and unapologetic in their advancement of black females, but there are also those who perpetuate apartheid principles of viewing Whites and Indians as being better than Blacks and Coloureds (I have a huge issue with these labels, by the way).

"I also think we are not having the right conversations regarding the inclusion of the LGBTIQ community and people with disabilities in the workplace and within the economy in general. We need to be deliberate about inclusion in our talent pipeline programmes."

We are not going to miraculously find the kind of diversity we need in the economically active population unless we invest in diversifying the junior talent pool through bursaries, internships, graduate development programmes, apprenticeships and learnerships. We have to partner with government institutions such as schools and SETAs to encourage the entry of all types of people into the workplace. And then we have to develop strategies to retain them in our organisations.

The conversation should not only be about racial equality. All marginalised groups of society should be part of the conversation. There are very basic things that we are simply not paying attention to. I mean, how many corporate offices in this country have unisex toilets? Are we even talking about the lack of diversity in parliament? I am very wary of labels, but how many of us know a gay or lesbian Minister, for example?

We will see very little change, until the boardroom narrative changes from that of ticking boxes to one that says: how do we deliberately change the status quo and decisively deal with people who refuse to do “what’s best for business” in the true sense.

Find our voice 

We, as HR Directors need to become much more vocal about transformation and the development of the labour force. Our jobs do not start and end within corporate boardrooms.

It is HR that is at the coalface of organisations. We are probably the first people that will interact with employees before they become part of an organisation. We are the first people to see and come to terms with the impact of a deteriorating education system. We see first-hand the impact of skills shortages on our organisations. HR is at the centre of conflict resolution when there are diversity issues, be it racial tensions, sexual harassment, homophobia and other such conflicts. No one understands the fallacy of the “Rainbow Nation” within corporate South Africa better than HR professionals.

But what can we possibly do? I think we have to find our collective voice to influence government policy. As a collective, we should be saying to the Department of Education, for example, that it can’t keep dropping pass marks and allowing students to opt out of mathematics because we know that the future lies within the STEM jobs. We should collectively be telling the Department of Labour that whatever SETA reforms have taken place are simply not yielding the desired results. Perhaps this is happening at some level, but my own opinion is that we are allowing business associations/bodies, led by business people, to make pronouncements on issues that we as HR leaders have intimate knowledge of. I am in no way suggesting that business people should not be pronouncing on these matters, I am simply saying that the voice of HR is conspicuously missing. 

That is why I believe the CHRO South Africa community can grow into something very significant. It is a platform that connects the top HR leaders and allows them to engage each other on strategic and macro policy matters. HR Directors should be thinking beyond their organisations about how human capital can become a catalyst for economic growth and a thriving economy.

Until we reach that level, as a collective, mentoring the next generation is something we can do individually. Perhaps the next generation will create the future that we can only dream of. Our role is to help them unleash their potential for the betterment of our country.

Cebile Xulu is a member of the CHRO South Africa community and is currently HR Director, South & Central East Africa for Mondelez International. The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Mondelez International.

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