Transforming South Africa’s workplace

23 April 2014
Phumla Williams

The transformation of the workplace to be truly non-racial and non-sexist both in the public and private sector was never going to be an easy task. We inherited a country characterised by 450 years of unfair discrimination, divided on the basis of race and gender, and the exclusion of people with disabilities. The discriminatory measures elevated the socio-economic status of white people at the expense of black people.  

Reflecting on the road we have travelled towards reversing this legacy, we are pleased by the progress we have made but are acutely aware that more still needs to be done. The government has passed legislation to deal with the gross inequalities and unfair discrimination which we inherited. Today, the fundamental right to equality is guaranteed, and we have ensured equality in the social, political and economic spheres.

The Employment Equity ActSkills Development ActPromotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act are examples of the legislation enacted by the government to reverse this legacy of discrimination and inequality. Employment equity is not only a moral and human rights imperative; it is critical for the achievement of sustainable development, economic growth and equality.

Addressing the Employment Equity and Transformation Indaba this year, the Minister of Labour, Mildred Oliphant said: “This piece of legislation [Employment Equity Act] sought to contribute to the restoration of human dignity and human rights that were deprived to the majority of South Africans by: promoting equal opportunity and fair treatment in employment through the elimination of unfair discrimination; and implementing affirmative action measures to redress the disadvantages in employment experienced by designated groups [and] achieving equality in the workplace.”

Through these provisions, we have successfully transformed the public sector to a level where the previously disadvantaged groups are better represented at top management level than in 1994. The public sector has also more than doubled its female representation while people with disability continue to advance to higher levels. The 14th Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) Annual Report, which was released recently, confirms that Africans in government and parastatals are in the majority at top management positions with over 70 and 60 per cent respectively.

The representation of Whites in government is more than 14 per cent, followed by Coloureds at 7,7 per cent and Indians at 6,6 per cent. In parastatals Whites are at 23 per cent while Coloureds and Indians are over 5 and 8 per cent respectively. The strong transformation in the public sector has however not been matched by the private sector. Sixteen years after we enacted the Employment Equity Act, the statistics show that the majority of companies in the private sector have not fully dealt with the inequalities in the workplace.

The report further shows that the status quo remains, Whites still dominate at top management level constituting 62.7 per cent, followed by Africans at 19.8 per cent, Indians at 8.3 per cent while Coloureds make up 5.1 per cent. People with disabilities are at 0.9 per cent of the total number of employees reported by all employers in 2013.

The snail’s pace of transformation in the workplace has the potential to exacerbate the sense of injustice that the values and ideals of the Freedom Charter are not being fully honoured in the private sector. The Freedom Charter proclaims that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it black and white”.

The Department of Labour has in response to the slow pace of transformation in the workplace introduced amendments to the Employment Equity Act. The main purpose of the Act, which was signed by President Jacob Zuma earlier this year, is to eliminate unfair discrimination, strengthen the implementation and enforcement mechanisms to bring about equitable workplaces across all occupational levels. It will also ensure that South Africa complies with, and meets its obligations in terms of the International Labour Organisation  standards.

Speaking on the importance of this Act, Minister Oliphant stated: “It is important to emphasise that the draft Employment Equity regulations recently published for public comment, are in no way intended to disadvantage any of the designated groups, in particular the Coloured and Indian groups. In fact, contrary to what some parties have claimed, the regulations were introduced to enhance the implementation of the law given the high levels of non-compliance that the Department has observed over the 16 years of the enactment of this Act.”

A precondition of nation building is to undo the damages of the past. It is up to all democratic institutions and South Africans themselves to address the inequalities of the past. This is essential if we are to move South Africa closer to a non-racial society.

The assertion that South Africa does not have qualified black people who can fill senior and top management positions does not hold water. Since 1994, the number of Africans, Coloureds and Indians graduating from tertiary institutions has increased significantly.

As we move into our third decade of freedom, ever sector of society needs to make a concerted effort to recruit, train and promote qualified black people to senior and top management positions. These are not just idle concepts; these are the building blocks of our society.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)