Friday, March 2, 2007

Letter from South Africa - The Societal Costs of Affirmative Action

For the next 10 days, I will be blogging from South Africa, where I am on a tour to visit friends and colleagues and to participate in a training course on Change Management in Johannesburg.

I just arrived at the Western Cape, where I am visiting an old friend and colleague, Valerie Morris, who is the person who brought Open Space Technology to South Africa 15 years ago. Together with her partner Judy at Renaissance Business Associates, she is doing incredible work for personal and group development. She is such a wonderful source of inspiration for me. Have a look at the view I am having from my desk.

It is not the first time that I am in this country that is still torn apart so I was expecting that I will have controversial discussions. They started right after my arrival. Reading the newspaper of today, the hot issue discussed here is the affirmative action that the Government is taking towards ensuring a better share of the wealth and towards better employability for those who have been let out from any economic development for hundreds of years. For example, private companies above a certain size are obliged to try to make their workforces "demographically representative" (i.e. 75% black, 50% female, etc.) from factory floor to boardroom. Further, the government wants about 25% of most industries to be in black hands by 2010.

Sounds like a good idea? It does. However, the systemic effects for the national economy are devastating. Not enough skilled labour is available to fill the vacancies that the national economy is generating. Economic growth is not as it should and could be, leaving a larger part of the population unemployed and in poverty. Already, the opposition but also parts of local Government are calling for a moratorium on the affirmative action plans. Read more at the Wall Street Journal, and at the Cape Times of today.

I looked at this problem from a systemic perspective, using Peter Senge's archetype Fixes That Fail, well described on the website of Gene Bellinger. There is a desired state, probably shared by the majority of the South African society (let us forget about those who never change). The poor, i.e. black population demands that promises on a better future are fulfilled, pronto. And the Goverment takes action, of which the Black Economic Empowerment is just one of many. This has unintended consequences, namely that most sectors of the industry cannot deliver because they are lacking the necessary skilled workers (training programmes so far have not produced the quantity of black specialists that are needed). Meanwhile, many skilled white people have left the country. So, the current state (segregation plus wide-spread poverty) is maintained, putting an even higher pressure on the Government.

A solution is not in sight. I will continue exploration of this hot issue and be your reporter on that in the next days.


susanne hildebrand said...

There was an interview in an english newspaper about that two weeks ago. It was a guy who helds courses for skilled people to help them move out of the country cause many of them feel blocked in their career. Looks like it would take some time to go for equality in education. I asked myself if the people who hurry out of the country would be willing to share their skills in training courses, mentoring programs etc. Sounds like perfect conditions for an open space to me with high levels of complexity in terms of the issue, high levels of diversity in terms of the participants, high levels of conflict and decision time yesterday ...

Projectman said...

Six years ago I wanted to change jobs as there was no room for progression where I was. As a white male, I moved from South Africa to Ireland as it was easier/possible to find a job in Ireland (and I had been looking for about a year at the time). I still miss South Africa, but whenever I check vacancies am told they are AA/EE. Light at the end of the tunnel is that there are discussions going on about not applying AA/EE to young white males who were not of working age in the apartheid era, else they will be discriminated against. For their sake I hope this happens. Looking from the outside in, I have to agree with your use of Senge's model. Best Regards, Marius

Anonymous said...

Iive been working as a change management consultant in London for a year, returning home to South Africa in August.

By returning to SA:
- I can expect to be part of a single-income household. My highly educated risk manager partner is likely to have to look for employment for a couple of months(he previously looked in SA for a year)
- I will earn proportionately 3 times less than i did in London
- My superiors are likely to be less skilled than me resulting in a negative work environment

Still, I believe that it is people like me who will realise the change. I believe in my wonderful country, i believe in its people & our shared future.

There will always be those who come home & with them bring a world of experience - along with those who stayed behind and understand the environment - we CAN realise the change. Thanks,

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