Legacy of apartheid hits SA’s work ethic

VENTURES AFRICA – The South African economic landscape has seen so much labour strife that some have joked that worker strikes have become Africa’s most advanced economy’s national pastime.

According to data collected and analysed in 2013 by the government’s department of labour, there was a rise in the number of strike incidents during that year. About 114 strike cases were identified and recorded by the department, and the number of strikes recorded in 2013 was more than the strikes recorded in the five years before. This represented an increase of 15.1 percent between 2012 and 2013.

During the period under review, the mining industry continued to experience more working days lost. In total, the sector lost 515,971 in 2013, contributing 27.9 percent of the total days lost to the economy. This was followed by the transport and manufacturing industries at 477,355 and 343,222 working days lost respectively. In 2013, about R6.7 billion ($562m) in wages was lost due to the participation of workers in strikes as compared to the R6.6 billion ($553.4m) in 2012. Figures for 2014 were not available at the time of writing this article.What does did say about the culture of working in South Africa?

It is basically unsettling that workers have become so numbed to losing months of wages that it is now seen as a social norm. There are many underlying factors that contribute to these outbursts. But little attention is given to the more subtle emotions and ideas not expressed but manifests themselves in their work ethic and life views.

One of them is that in South Africa, the apartheid regime, supported by the country’s big capital, exploited workers so much so that many did not enjoy going to work at all.

So, the workplace became a platform of the struggle against the government and capitalists. Unfortunately when the new democratic government came into power, it failed to make sure that there was serious transformation in the workplace. This meant the legacy of fighting employers continued as the workers continued to be exploited with little or no change.

In addition, the South African working landscape is unfortunately dominated by white employers and supervisors. Many are known to be very nasty people and still treat black people as sub human. For example, I once worked in a newsroom that was teeming with talented journalists. But the company decided to hire a white editor who was clearly racist. But the company was not aware he was racist. He ran the newsroom as his fiefdom, forcing all those journos to resign and join other companies. This begs the question, what is the magic formula for instilling the desired work ethic in South Africa’s existing and prospective employees?

According Shamillah Wilson, a human resources specialist from Sowilo Leadership Solutions, the good news is that there are ways to address it. “The bad news is that it requires dedicated efforts and initiatives to ensure that the results of these efforts are enduring.”

It could be great if South African businesses’ focus should be on the brand, profit and also releasing the potential of the people in the business. If South African businesses could do this then I am sure that the work ethic can come back in the South African workplace and the labour strife can be reduced. “The key is to take responsibility for changing and instilling a desired work ethic,” Wilson says. “This means actively creating mechanisms for identifying and articulating it in company documents and plaques such that it is not the company’s best kept secret. Taking responsibility is a key leadership strategy which involves management embodying the values and principles in their actions, interactions inside and outside of the company.”