By Howard Wallack

Our first official appointment, following a cross-cultural briefing by our local guide on the country’s geography, culture and history, was with the Institute of People Management (IPM), South Africa’s membership-based HR association.  IPM CEO Rre Elijah Litheko was accompanied by IPM President Rajoshan Seepersad and six other board members and volunteers. They provided an insightful overview of employment and HR law and explained the most pressing challenges facing HR practitioners.  Recalling the country’s transition from Apartheid to a democratic market economy, Litheko reviewed the transformative, but complex legislation that now governs HR. Overlaying the regulatory framework, there are numerous education and training elements, too.

The IPM team shared perspectives with us on their greatest current HR challenges. Primary among them: How to position HR strategically and have an impact–essentially defining HR’s role. Other important issues include change management and the velocity of change, talent and skills development, and leadership as well as the necessity for HR to be involved in the revenue-generating side of the business.  To redress the historical distortions of Apartheid, the decades-long policy of racial segregation that didn’t  end until 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency, they explained the prevailing context of ‘Black Economic Empowerment.” It has seven elements, which include ownership, management and control, employment equity, skills development, enterprise development, procurement, and community reinvestment.

Our next professional visit was to the University of Pretoria’s Department of Human Resource Management in South Africa’s administrative capital. There, we met seven faculty members so we could better understand current trends, as well as their research efforts in HR. Their insights echoed the sentiments of IPM, with transformation and talent management, globalization and expansion into the rest of Africa, and compliance with the country’s many labor and employment laws topping the list of challenges. Another concern was the use of assessment tools, which are very regulated, with employers having to show they are job relevant, fair and non-biased, and reliable and validated before they can use them to screen candidates for hire.

To round out our professional meetings, we took a trip to the township of Soweto, getting some exposure to one of the country’s more famous communities. We saw some examples of side-by-side wealth and poverty, ranging from the affluence of large formal homes to the squalor of informal settlements. A visit to the Soweto Skiptown Youth Centre (SKY), which provides shelter and youth development programs to homeless children and others in need of education and mentoring, showed us that self-help programs that provide tangible solutions are thriving there. SKY’s founder, Bob Nameng, was honored as a CNN Hero a few years ago.

We have so much more on our agenda—meetings with a local HR certification body, a networking dinner with senior HR professionals, a session with Cape Town city government’s HR operations, an appointment with South Africa’s “best employers” ratings operation, and corporate visits. Watch this space for more to come.

Howard Wallack is SHRM’s Director of Global Member Programs and Global Business Development. Senior HR professionals will be participating in the HR management delegation to South Africa through November 7. Part three of Howard’s adventures in South Africa continues Tuesday, Nov. 6.