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Variety is one of life’s extraordinary design features. It both arises from and leads to evolutionary innovation.

Who could possibly have sat down at a drawing board and imagined from scratch a rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe, warthog and dung beetle and then let them all survive in the same conditions? Nature exceeds the imagination in a spectacularly bizarre and wonderful display.

This unfolding diversity allows organisms to adapt in unpredictable ways as the environment changes. I read that the peppered moth in England is yellow with darker spots. But when the Industrial Revolution covered the environment in soot, pale moths were predated heavily while dark-coloured moths survived and became predominant. Now, with pollution under better control, cream-coloured moths stand out less and are making a comeback.

We humans too are particularly varied. We come packaged in small and large bodies, short and tall, with all grades of skin colour, and amazingly, possessing unique fingerprints and irises. We have minds containing an infinite variety of capacities, memories, ideas and intentions. This variety has survival value. Because of differences, we avoid all rushing down the same dead end, helping us to survive as a species. So far.

We use words usefully to explain and respond to the differences that we discover in each other. Words like “friendly”, “suspicious”, “powerful”, “generous”, “conservative” and “radical” help us make sense of our relationships.

Words entail categorising. That is necessary and useful, but when, under pressure of competition for limited resources, we turn these categories into labels carrying differing value judgments, we soon stop enjoying diversity and begin defending against it. We create competing classes of people who conform in our minds to “us” or “them”. And history teaches us to fear “them”. It’s a short step from there to exclusion, propaganda, conflict and war, as is now emerging all over the world.

After World War 2, humanity recoiled from the hideous inhumanity inflicted on innocent people by those who considered themselves the most civilised and educated nations. We learnt that no-one is immune to the deadly virus of ethnic, religious, ideological, gender or nationalist exclusiveness. In shock, the world recoiled from two hideous world wars and created institutions and enshrined values intended (rather naively, as it turned out) to ensure “never again”.

Yet just 80 years later, here we are again. We have forgotten the horror unleashed when we make enemies out of those who differ from us. We are slipping inexorably into increasing xenophobia and genocide. It is becoming fashionable to celebrate autocracy, as long as the autocrat is one of “us”, and to dismiss the institutions of liberal democracy that were designed to include all. Indeed, some are tempted to use these very institutions to exclude “them”.

What a failure of the human spirit.

In future columns, I want to write about the gift and the threat of diversity in managing teams at work. In our small way, managers are given the opportunity to guide our people to appreciate variety as a magnificent and necessary part of life, and to learn how to avoid triggering a path to destruction. This is needed at the level of nations and even at the level of neighbours. We can contribute to both by applying mutual respect at the level of organisations.

Meanwhile, South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday. Elections provide a stern test of our ability to respect those who differ from us. Maybe even more important than who wins will be how both winners and losers allow themselves to work together for our common good.

If you are voting, I pray you will support those who know how to share the future, and not those who build their support on excluding others.

• Cook chairs the African Management Institute.

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