The Reading Rainbow

The Importance of Diversity Literacy in South Africa

By Kutlwano Bokala

“Reading is not walking on the words; it's grasping the soul of them.” – Paulo Freire

We live in a time where progressive transformation equals superficial compliance to BEE statutes, radical social justice equals ridiculed cries of passion and increased globalisation equals the westernisation of Africa. Many South Africans will graduate from educational institutions, retire from illustrious careers, travel to foreign countries and affiliate with people from diverse backgrounds, never having to encounter concepts of race, gender, age, sexuality, disability and post-colonialism in meaningful ways. Nor will they be required to consider how these theories apply in their everyday lives and contribute to the present-day complexities of South Africa that require a greater understanding of the concept known as diversity and the changing relationships of people differently positioned within the nation-state. However, the influence of South Africa’s prevailing legacy on the current social climate desperately calls for its citizens to develop a soul-seeking curiosity into the social politics of what it means to be different. This is especially true for Human Resources professionals, educators, politicians, social activists, corporate executives, civil servants and other leaders in society at the helm of transformative nation building.

Beyond the legalities of employment equity that seem to force the hand of those belonging to dominant groups or the negative responses to images of students fighting for radical change, there is a need for South African professionals to prepare themselves to function sensitively in social contexts characterised by diversity. Hence, Diversity Literacy as an acquired competency should be a fundamental constituent in the socially constructed imaginary of its citizens. A sort of reading practice is necessary for one to begin to “read” the social relations and pervasive structures of inequality within society the way one would “read” text.

Inspired by Steyn’s (2014) Critical Diversity Literacy Framework, the efforts of a diversity-literate individual should be employed in accordance with the following criteria:

•             Identifying the material and symbolic manifestations of dominant identities e.g. whiteness, heterosexuality, masculinity, ablebodiedness, heteronormativity, christonormativity, etc.

•             Exposing how these systems of oppression intersect, interlock, co-construct and constitute each other

•             Recognising the definition of oppressive systems such as racism as current social problems rather than a historical legacy

•             Understanding that social identities are learned and an outcome of social practices

•             Analysing of the ways in which diversity hierarchies and institutionalised oppressions are mediated by class inequality

•             Engaging with issues of transformation of oppressive systems towards deepening democracy in all levels of social organisation

This provocative way of appraising the social complexities of an evolving world requires individuals to adopt an analytical orientation that allows one to develop an integrated consciousness that is personal, social and political. A dialectic experience is ignited within the individual whereby personal liberation and social transformation manifest as virtuous foundations of existence. Literacy thus becomes a liberating exercise of transformation; to understanding what one “reads” and to “writing” what one understands.

Drawing on the cutting edge of social theory and the recognition of social construction, Diversity Literacy opens up new ways of thinking about the commonly held ‘truths’ about Mzansi’s diversity problem and other cultural issues exacerbating it. Therefore, it is crucial that society begins to see beyond the taken-for-granted facts disseminated by dominant discourses like mass media or government that ultimately hold up the structures of systematic oppression.

South Africans need to wake up from the slumbers of complacency induced by the sweet lullabies of neoliberalism and sharpen their euphoric vision of national harmony blurred by the utopian ideals of “rainbowism”. This is not to say that the South African dream for the rainbow nation is an illusion. On the contrary, it is very much a reality. An imaginary, socially constructed, that calls for one not to stop believing in the rainbow but to interrogate the creation of the rainbow in the first place.


Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. South Hadley, Mass: Bergin & Garvey.

Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a Liberation Psychology. A. Aron & S. Corne (Eds.). Harvard: Harvard University Press

Steyn, M. (2010). Critical Diversity Literacy: Diversity Awareness in Twelve South African Organisations. Innovative Issues and Approaches in Social Sciences, 3 (3).

Steyn, M. (2014). Critical Diversity Literacy: Essentials for the Twenty-first Century. In Routledge International Handbook of Diversity Studies (pp. 379–389). New York: Routledge. 


unnamedKutlwano Bokala is a writer and researcher specialising in organisational development and human resource solutions at the Institute for Transdisciplinary Development (ITD).

She holds a Bachelor of Commerce and honours degrees in Human Resource Management from the University of Pretoria and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her academic interests are in Critical Diversity and the interdisciplinary course of study that ranges widely between, but not limited to, social psychology, politics, gender studies, critical race studies, queer phenomenology, sociology, affective studies, social justice education, de-colonial studies and intersectionality.

With the guidance of her supervisor SARChi ( South African Research Chairs Initiative) chair of Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, prof Melissa Steyn, Kutlwano aims to publish her thesis titled “The Affective Black Experience: Struggles with Conformity for Young Black Professionals in Corporate SA”. In her thesis, she aims to amplify the experiences of young black professionals struggling to assimilate into the dominant work culture of their organisation, often foreign to their own, as well as expose the power structures that construct the subjectivities of such employees as outsiders within.

As an aspiring social scientist, Kutlwano attributes her pursuit for social justice, transformative equality and personal liberation to her upbringing as an Afro-Canadian born of politically exiled parents. This transcultural experience informs her professional efforts to empowering individuals from various backgrounds.

When not immersed in her studies, Kutlwano appreciates various expressions of the arts, daring to partake in acting, writing and singing, as well as enjoys the writings of social giants like Sara Ahmed, Kopano Ratele, Warsan Shire and Maya Angelou.