By Howard Wallack

Things are very complicated in South Africa. However, history is in the making every day.

That’s what a group of eight of us travelling together through the SHRM-sponsored US-South Africa HR Executive Delegation has discovered since we arrived here in Johannesburg on Oct. 29.  We’ve all felt very much at home since we arrived, but we’re discovering that this country—rich in history, rich in resources, and rich in people—has a lot of challenges.

The delegation, organized by SHRM in partnership with People to People International, follows similar professional exchange programs in recent years to China, India, and Brazil—all with the goal of learning about how HR is practiced and the challenges the HR profession faces in an emerging economy. Combined, our group hails from five states, and cumulatively has 160 years of HR experience in talent management, labor relations, employee relations, merges and acquisitions, change management, and global HR. We’ve worked in the manufacturing, consulting, business services, dental insurance, city and state government, and nonprofit sectors.

The day we arrived, the South African government released the results of its 2011 census. This country of 51.7 million has an average unemployment rate of 29.8. About 40 percent of the unemployed have stopped looking for a job altogether. A national census reveals that 35.6 percent of the unemployed are black Africans. They make up 79.2 percent of the population.

How does a country—its HR practitioners particularly– manage in this environment?  We’re about to find out …

Howard Wallack is SHRM’s director of global member programs and global business development. Senior HR professionals are participating in the HR management delegation to South Africa through Nov. 7. Part two of Howard’s adventures in South Africa continues Monday, Nov. 5.