JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The beat reverberates through the conference room, pulsing up from the bordeaux-colored floor and bouncing off the aqua-green walls.
An unlikely symphony of 30 retail sales managers pound on African drums as if their careers depended on it. One black man, his tie loosened, lets out a yelp. An Afrikaner lady, careful not to chip her nails, goes off on her own rhythm, a ra-ta-ta-ta to the group's ta-ta-ta-ra.
African drumming team-building exercises such as this one have become trendy in recent years, with businesses around the globe bringing in tom-toms and whistles to help CEOs and secretaries learn lessons in office harmony. But in South Africa, the process takes on a particular significance.
In a country in which most adults still remember the days of segregation in the workplace during the white apartheid regime, the idea of a cross section of society learn- ing to make rhythms and work and socialize together is still fresh. And although improved laws now have South Africans of all sorts mixing freely around the water coolers, observers say that undercurrents of resentment, and feelings of unease and insecurity, still keep different races apart both at work and after hours.
"When I was a kid in rural areas we would drum for fun, for a release. I never thought it could be like this, mixed," says Daniel Makhobe, a black sales manager from Pretoria.
During the years of apartheid, blacks who make up some 77 percent of the country's 43 million people held the menial and labor-intensive jobs, and were paid less. Indians and "coloreds" people of mixed race were allowed slightly better jobs, but were still discriminated against by whites, who make up about 10 percent of the population.
The end of the apartheid regime in 1994 and the introduction of employment-equity laws a few years later changed all that.
In the past eight years, the South African workplace has begun to reflect society more closely. According to Labor Department statistics, blacks hold 27.3 percent of the jobs at all levels of management across all sectors of the economy.
"Integration in the workplace has been successful," says John Kane-Berman, director of the Institute for Race Relations in Johannesburg. "You can't actually do anything in this country today without black-white collaboration."
But old feelings die hard, and some groups in particular the Afrikaner and Indian minorities even complain that they are now being targeted by a reverse racism.
"There are still major hurdles to be faced when pulling people together," admits Temba Mpofu, personnel training manager for United Appeal, a retail clothing outfit which is holding its annual weekend retreat in a posh suburb north of Johannesburg. "We share office space but we often sidestep one another."
Mr. Mpofu set up the schedule for the weekend, organizing seminars on leadership in the workplace and discussion groups on empowerment.
It was also Mpofu who decided to bring in Steve Barnett, South Africa's preeminent drum-circle facilitator.
"I heard about the guy helping out other companies, and I said, 'Why not? We will try anything.' "
Mr. Barnett says that, initially, his different way of doing things was met with resistance. "When I first started out six years ago, the whites would look uncomfortable and the black guys would sit there with their arms folded," says Barnett, a white South African with baby blue eyes and gray hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"The whites would be saying, 'I don't drum,' and the blacks would be thinking, 'What is this whitey going to teach us?' But I was not there to teach anyone about their culture, or force anyone to play music. I was there to offer some unity. This is not about drumming. It's about people coming together in rhythm."
In traditional Western-style music, explains Barnett, there is usually a soloist. But in traditional African music, it's all about the ensemble. "It's not about one person playing to the village; it's about all the members of the village coming together," says Barnett, who claims that in all his time as a facilitator he has never come across a group, big or small, that did not, by the end of his drumming session, connect in some way. "I enjoy watching a transformation that takes place," he says. "And it always does." The self-styled "motivational nonspeaker" is booked solid for the next six months.
"We come from different cultures, but we are all from the land of Africa," Barnett murmurs to the store managers in a hypnotic voice. "Share energy with your group."
Answering that call, an elderly woman in an oversized Minnie Mouse sweatshirt gets up and begins a traditional hoi toi dance, her shoulders raised high to her ears, her arms moving in a jogging motion, in sync with the pounding.
"It is exhilarating," says Pam Marie, a young Indian woman who works in the United Apparel's store in the port city of Durban. "I never before drummed. But it took over me somehow."
Mr. Makhobe knows that drumming cannot solve all the country's problems. "I don't think this exercise is going to change the way we consider one another. That will take much longer, of course," he says. "But I am proud that my company brings in these African instruments and has us play together."
Barnett says that things are on the right track in South Africa.
"I feel OK about this country," he says as he stands back and watches the scene. "Knowing how it was 10 years ago I find a lot to be encouraged about. People want to connect. A lot of our separation from one another comes from fear."
The bottom line, says Barnett, is that people are happy when they feel a part of something larger. "South Africans actually want that unity, they want to be part of the community," he says. "They just need to practice."