By Howard Wallack 

South Africa is a vibrant and joyous place that challenges all the senses. Despite the high unemployment, complicated politics and the historical legacies the country is trying to redress, there is a certain sense of anticipation of better things to come. That’s tempered by a frustration that the country hasn’t quite achieved the changes it wants as fast as it needs.

In Cape Town one afternoon as we toured the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden we saw hundreds of bright-colored Protea plants, the national flower, in full bloom.  Bird-of-Paradise plants were blossoming, too.  The country’s landscape brims with textures, colors, and scents, and whether we were in Soweto, Johannesburg, Pretoria or Cape Town—we were greeted with smiles. Yes, life is still hard for many, but in learning about HR in South Africa we also learned:

– HR as practiced here is both tactical and strategic. HR performance and the application of best practices vary widely.

– Key challenges shared across industries and sectors include talent management, leadership development, skills shortages and skills development, and change management.

– Diversity and Inclusion – called “Transformation” here – are driven by compliance with the many post-Apartheid laws to bring racial equity to the fore. The business case for diversity still needs deeper and broader articulation.

– Unionization is generally high and politicized and has historical roots to the anti-Apartheid effort and the government.

– South Africa has its own HR competency model, HR standards development effort, and HR registry. Each is significantly different from ongoing initiatives in the U.S.  that are lead by SHRM.

– HR is growing as a career choice. There are many degree and diploma programs in existence in universities and technical universities.

– Values-based management has been embraced by a number of leading companies.

As we packed up to return to the U.S., we reflected on a very intensive, yet short trip, realizing that we’ve seen only a glimpse of the country’s landscape and met with a very small sampling of organizations and individuals.  Yet, even with the limited sample, it’s clear that  the country and its HR practices here are all very complicated, complex, resilient, joyous, and vibrant.

That’s very fitting for the “Rainbow Nation.”

Howard Wallack is SHRM’s Director of Global Member Programs and Global Business Development. Senior HR professionals participated in the HR management delegation to South Africa. This concludes Howard’s adventures in South Africa.

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