With the celebration of Mandela’s 100th birthday this month, I’ve been reflecting on the power of the role that Madiba played in South Africa’s story and how many others played their part before and after 1994. Each story brings a new perspective and a different piece to our bigger collective story. We need to document these stories and share them broadly, which is exactly what Nene Molefi did last year when she published “A Journey of Diversity & Inclusion in South Africa: Guidelines for Leading Inclusively”. In less than a year, her book had already received significant international attention, which made me eager to interview her about the experience of writing her story. Here is what she shared with me:
JT: Where did the idea for the book come from?.
NM: It came out of my experience growing up in Soweto and then being a diversity practitioner in various organisations in South Africa. Whenever I would talk about my story in a workshop, people would ask me: “Where is the book?!”
JT: What was the most challenging part of writing the book?
NM: It was very hard to decide what to put in and what to leave out. You can never capture a person’s whole life in a book. It was also a challenge to decide who I was writing this book for, because we make the biggest mistake if we only see diversity work in the workplace. I wanted to write a book that would appeal to people in schools, in the workplace, in society in general. That was the biggest challenge. Who is the audience? Everyone.
JT: What was the most rewarding part of the process?
NM: Looking back at my life. Looking back at the challenges, and that even though those challenges may have damaged me, I was able to come through them. So they are stories that will give hope and inspiration.
JT: What type of feedback have you received about your book?
NM: The most touching feedback that I have received, and it has happened several times, is when I get a random email from an ordinary South African saying that they see themselves in my story. They say: “I didn’t know what I was going through has a name – like micro inequities or social differentials.” It tells them they are not crazy. It tells them that what they are going through is not right.
There was another piece of feedback that really stuck with me. A woman said to me: “You know, I can use this book at home, around what I am communicating. How do I show up when I have sleep overs at my house? What do I say to other people’s children? What subliminal messages are we sending to our kids?”
JT: That is so true. Do you have other examples of how the book is being used?
NM: In South Africa, there are schools that have decided to buy the book for all their teachers. One school in particular has decided to form a book club and they are going through each chapter to draw out the tips and insights that they can apply for themselves and use in their own environment.
There is also a lot of interest outside South Africa. For example, a university in the USA contacted me to say that they are interested in making it required reading for their Global Diversity course. They liked the fact that the book is based on a personal story but can also be used in an academic context.
Some of the corporates that I work with are saying that they would like to make the book part of their diversity and inclusion workshops, as an ongoing tool and reference. We are also finalising an app, which will be a personal development plan drawn from the book, to measure yourself around what you can actually do on a daily basis to live more inclusively.
JT: Have you had any surprises in terms of reactions or responses to the book?
NM: Not many, but I was surprised by an academic who said that it is not really an academic book. What classifies an academic book? We need to understand that if a story is a personal story, it doesn’t have to be ‘academic’ to teach important lessons.
JT: Tell me about the ‘slums’ comment. There was one review that called Soweto a slum and that surprised me. How did it land with you?
NM: Every day I come across examples of the power of unconscious bias, even with people who really mean well. We need to start the work at home. There are so many stereotypes and images that are locked into people’s minds. We need to expose people broadly. They need to understand the true Soweto and the true Johannesburg.
JT: What is your long term hope or desire for the book?
NM: Even if it is 10 years from today, I would like any child in Japan or Bangladesh to pick up this book and find a story in it that they resonate with. Because the essence of diversity and inclusion is not country based. That is why it surprises me when people say we are obsessed with these issues in South Africa. What is important for me is for people to understand that when you do not experience disadvantage you have no right to disqualify it as if it doesn’t exist. If you are not going through it, you are causing injury if you say ‘there is no such thing’. Rather be curious and engage more. Let someone else’s story be a catalyst for unlearning and relearning even if you have not personally experienced it.
JT: That is really powerful. Do you have any advice for others who want to write their stories?
NM: I always encourage people to document their stories. There are too few books written by us. So rather than reacting to the wrongs that others can write or say about our country, why don’t we write what we have lived through.
JT: Absolutely! Where can people get a copy of your book?
NM: From my publisher Knowledge Resources (hard copy or e-book), or from Amazon or Exclusive Books.
JT: Thank you so much for your time to share all of this with me. It resonates deeply with me because my own journey has been so inspired and challenged by the stories of others. In fact, it was several books written by South African authors that brought me to South Africa many years ago and I’ve been learning and growing here ever since. I hope many more people get a chance to read your story.