South Africa’s post-apartheid laws mean companies are having to undergo
radical reforms to ensure equity in the workplace. By Nicole Itano. Photographs
by Jon Hrusa
Sitting in the cockpit of the Boeing jet he pilots daily between the South
African cities of Johannesburg and Durban, Mpho Mamashela has already reached
new heights for a black South African.
Ten years ago it would have been unheard of for a black man, or woman, to
pilot a passenger jet for South African Airways, the country’s national
airline. Today, eight years after South Africa’s first free, multi-racial
elections, Mamashela is the airline’s first black captain and one of about 12
new black pilots.
While Mamashela’s rise is a cause for celebration at the formerly all-white
airline, the still small numbers of black pilots at the company shows how
difficult the road to reconciliation has been for South African businesses, and
how much work is still to be done.
New post-apartheid laws mandate that companies in South Africa take steps to
make their workforces reflect society’s racial make-up, particularly in
management. Such changes however, will require an almost complete turnaround in
company workforces. More than 70 per cent of South Africans are black, another
15 per cent are Indian or coloured – a South African term for people of mixed
racial heritage – yet at the end of apartheid nearly all management and skilled
positions were in the hands of whites.
Under a set of new laws passed in 1998, South African companies must develop
an empowerment plan and set diversity goals for themselves. They also levy a 1
per cent payroll tax on companies for skills training, which companies can
reclaim by proving they have spent a certain amount of money on training and
education programmes targeted at previously disadvantaged groups.
These laws are far more aggressive than their US counterparts, but the
problem they are seeking to redress is far more severe. Unlike US affirmative
action laws, South African laws advocate the use of quotas and state that their
goal is not only to redress past discrimination, but achieve racial and gender
equity in the workforce. There is even a provision for the inclusion of the
disabled, at a rate equivalent to their representation in society, about 1 per
"It is very difficult to do business without worrying about it,"
says Chris Todd, chief executive of Laser HR Solutions in Johannesburg, which
helps companies adhere to equity laws. "Everything is aimed at forcing
change, so that the demographics reflect those of the country. It’s very much a
Nearly four years after the laws were first passed, progress is being made.
The number of non-whites and women in professional and management positions is
rising, and an increasing number of top positions are held by non-whites.
According to statistics from the South African Department of Labor, 53 per cent
of new recruits in 2000 were black and 20 per cent were coloured or Indian.
But HR professionals warn that the path to equality will be long and
difficult. There are not enough educated non-whites to fill demand, sometimes
leading to unqualified people being promoted. There is growing resentment among
whites who feel their own job opportunities are shrinking.
"It isn’t working as fast as parliament wants it to, but I don’t think
it ever will," says Mark Kerruish, senior consultant at Brentwood
Associates, which works with small and medium-sized companies on their affirmative
action programmes. "But it is working, slowly. Attitudes are
The challenges for South Africa as it tries to reach employment equity are
enormous. The entire apartheid system was designed to protect and create
white-collar security for South Africa’s white minority, and nearly every
aspect of apartheid society – from housing policies to its education programmes
– was designed to keep whites and blacks in their ‘proper places’.
Unfortunately for South Africa, the apartheid government did its work too
well. Not only were non-whites excluded from high-paying jobs in business and
the civil service, the majority were also denied access to education. Under the
country’s ‘Bantu education’ system, black South Africans were taught what the
government thought they needed to know, which for people expected to become
maids and mineworkers wasn’t much: enough English to understand directions, and
perhaps a few numbers.
A few elite South Africans, such as former president Nelson Mandela, managed
to acquire higher degrees through correspondence schools or one of the few
all-black colleges run by missionaries. Others went into exile and acquired
education there, but their numbers are few. Most non-whites were never given
the skills necessary to enter a modern, educated workforce.
For companies trying to diversify their workforce and adhere to South
Africa’s new employment laws, one of the biggest challenges is finding enough
qualified non-whites to fill new positions. Educated blacks, coloureds and
Indians are in high demand and rise quickly through the ranks, often leaving
companies that have trained them for better jobs.
"The skills you need to fill positions aren’t there. You want to fill
up your management team with black managers, but there are just not enough of
them," says Kerruish. "And then, as soon as you have a highly trained
black person, they become highly marketable and they’re gone. Some of our
clients are saying: ‘why should we pay to train them? We’ll just wait for
someone else to do it’."
Although the skills shortage among non-whites exists across the board, HR
professionals say filling generalist positions is easier than those requiring
specific technical skills. South Africa has a massive shortage of non-whites in
fields such as accounting and engineering, which require special training that
must be done outside the company. Skills for general management positions are
more easily acquired within the working environment.
For a company like South African Airways, which needs people with specific
skills and experience, the challenge of diversification is extremely difficult.
It was almost impossible for a black person to acquire a pilot’s license in
South Africa during apartheid; Mamashela was one of the few who did.
To try to increase the pool of non-white pilots, the company recently moved
its flight school from Australia to a largely black, underprivileged part of
South Africa, the idea being it would stimulate growth in that area and
encourage more blacks to train in aviation. But grooming new pilots will take a
Many HR professionals acknowledge that the high demand for educated
non-white people is causing many companies to move people through the ranks too
quickly. Indeed, many HR consultants say most companies would rather hire or
promote a non-white candidate with just enough qualifications to do the job,
than a more highly qualified white one.
"I would say one of the biggest hurdles is that we have got people at
levels in an organisation with in theory the right skills, but very often
insufficient experience," says Todd. "Essentially, it’s just about
accelerating people without providing the training and mentorship they need to
do a really good job."
As non-whites move quickly up through the ranks, resentment is growing among
white people. Paul Viljoen, an engineer with Johannesburg Water, like many
whites in the workforce has bluntly been told his prospects for advancement are
"I was told the company needed more black managers and there was little
chance I would move up," he says. "It is frustrating, but that’s the
Many young white people, especially those with little or moderate education,
are facing the prospect of a life in South Africa that offers far fewer
prospects for them than it did to their parents.
Low-level management jobs and positions in the civil service, once reserved
exclusively for white people, are now being largely given to non-whites. Even
those who recognise that the old system was little more than a complex
affirmative action programme for whites, find it hard to accept they are being
asked to pay the price for social re-adjustment.
"It is ironic," says a management consultant who works with a
mainly white consultant staff, helping companies design and implement
employment equity programmes. "We are going into companies to make sure
our relatives don’t get jobs. My brother, who is 25, is incredibly angry at
Still, the perception that whites are being discriminated against in the
South African workforce is not entirely true. While South Africa’s law calls
for equity, it also prohibits discrimination based on race. Whites cannot be
fired to make way for blacks, and at least one court case has upheld their
right to advancement based on ability.
Additionally, while companies are trying hard to diversify their staff,
whites are still being promoted and hired at rates far higher than equity would
demand. Sixty-five per cent of management promotions in 2000 were given to
whites, with 91 per cent of promotions to top management going to white men.
Across the board, blacks still hold less than 30 per cent of management
positions, even though they represent more than 70 per cent of the country.
One of the biggest struggles for many companies, beyond adhering to the
letter of the law, is changing their work environments to deal with the greater
diversity of their workforces. South Africa has 11 official languages and the
cultural divide between black, white, coloured and Indian grew deep during
Wendy Luhabe, a black South African woman, started a company that prepares
black South Africans for the workforce and South African companies to accept
them. Her company, Bridging the Gap, trains mainly young college graduates in
basic work skills such as how to act in an interview, and companies about
diversity sensitivity. Increasingly, companies are relying on third parties
like Luhabe to help them navigate the difficult new terrain of employment
equity and diversity.
South Africa’s new employment laws have also placed an array of new demands
on HR departments. The reporting demands of the Employment Equity Act are quite
expansive and the implementation of diversity and training programmes
time-consuming. The law specifically requires that companies appoint a manager
in charge of employment equity, and many large firms have created whole new
positions, even departments, to deal with equity issues.
But the majority of small and medium-sized firms are outsourcing the process
to companies such as Laser, Brentwood or Bridging the Gap, who better know the
requirements of the law and challenges of diversity. For most of these
companies, which are the majority of companies in South Africa, hiring a
full-time equity manager or even a full-time HR manager is often out of reach.
Theoretically, South Africa’s employment law recognises that training and
development must play an essential part in bringing more equity to the
country’s workforce. The Skills Development Levy, a sister act to the Employment
Equity Act, imposes a 1 per cent tax on an employer’s payroll, which companies
can regain by putting more money into education and training programmes. But
many HR professionals say too few companies see the link between this law and
their equity requirements.
"The market has not really seen that integration because they look at
the legislation as being two separate pieces," says Steve Kgatuke, project
manager at Picay, a company which helped the government draft employment equity
legislation and now works with companies to help them comply. "They don’t
see that they’re intertwined."
Management consultants say only a fraction of companies are actually taking
steps to reclaim their skills levies. For small and medium-sized companies in
particular, they say, it is simply too expensive to provide training.
Programmes to bring smaller companies together so they can share training
expenses have seen some success, but even then, it is difficult to let
employees out of work for educational purposes.
Despite the new demands on companies and ‘bumps in the road’, there is a
general acceptance among South African companies that change is needed and the
debate is largely about the details, not the overall goal.
"Most companies understand the importance of equity and are really
working to try to achieve it," says Kgatuke. "They realise South
Africa has changed and they have to change with it."