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Greater workplace democracy in South Africa’s companies is both a moral and ethical issue. Employees are often treated as infants. Because Black people are still predominantly low-skilled, low-wage and dominating manual positions – with whites occupying the high-skilled, high-paid and managerial positions - as it were during apartheid, racist perceptions of Black people as being inferior persist in many workplaces.

Greater workplace democracy may make South Africa’s labour market more peaceful, productive and less racially charged.

Generally across the globe companies are mostly run top down, hierarchically. The executives decide and the workers implement unquestioningly. Such top-down management strategies have their origin in the militaries, whether the ancient Roman or Chinese armies, or the first multinational companies during colonial times, such as the Dutch East India Company.

South Africa’s workplaces are among the least participative when it comes to decision-making by ordinary employees. In fact, for large swathes of South African corporates just the idea that ordinary employees should be involved in decision-making is an oxymoron.

Democracy in the workplace does not mean that each and every decision in a company has to be made by all workers. The idea is to allow ordinary workers more of a say in key strategic decisions.

South Africa’s social democratic constitution, with its socio-economic rights, envisaged not only the democratic participation of citizens in government, but in corollary also the democratic participation of citizens at corporate level.

Increasing authoritative research has shown that participatory workplaces are more profitable, because of the potential to increase performance, well-being and ownership.

South Africa’s dominant management culture essentially has three key aspects: one which is no different than in many other countries with the management approach being top-down, hierarchical, with decisions made by top management and employees required to execute at lower end.

But apartheid has left a second aspect to South Africa’s management approach, with Blacks not only mostly the employees that have to follow instructions, receive low-wages and have little rights, but management is mostly white.

The organizational and management culture of companies has also been infused with racial prejudice. Given that racist practices have been outlawed, there is either informal or subtle racism against Blacks, and/or the phenomenon of “whiteness” or “white privilege” where white employees are automatically seen as competent because of their skin colour, and “blackness”, where Black employees are automatically perceived to be less competent and prone to corruption or have to prove themselves harder before they receive recognition.

South African companies, particularly those predating 1994, are steeped in entrenched institutional racism, which is “disguised in standard operating procedures”, policies and organizational culture, whether criteria for appointment or promotion or measuring “competency” or undervaluing Black ideas.  

During apartheid there was a racial hierarchy which reserved professional jobs and skills, top management and boardrooms for whites. The workplaces were segregated from having separate toilets and eating places for whites to lower salaries, less or no benefits and pensions for Black people. Up until 1994 some skills were reserved for whites only; some residential and business properties were closed to Black people.

Official apartheid has formally ended, and with it segregation of facilities, job reservation and enforced racial management hierarchies. Nevertheless, the racial arrangement of the organizational structures of companies, workplaces and management has remained almost intact.

Greater workplace democracy in South Africa’s companies is both a moral and ethical issue.

Employees are often treated as infants. Because Black people are still predominantly low-skilled, low-wage and dominating manual positions – with whites occupying the high-skilled, high-paid and managerial positions - as it were during apartheid; apartheid perceptions of Blacks as inferior by choice in many workplaces still continues.

Furthermore, the version of capitalism subscribed to by many South African corporates is a very narrow one, based on the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan variant, which argues for unregulated markets, no or very limited role for government and which is often hostile to trade unions or employee representation in decision-making.

Other varieties of capitalism, whether the Northern European one, whether in Germany or Sweden or the Southeast Asian one, in South Korea or Japan, are much more stakeholder and partnership orientated, embracing employee participation, partnerships with trade unions and government.

Continued race-based deprivations and resentments at company level – with the majority of Black employees perceived to be relatively doing worse-off compared to their white peers, combined with the delivery failure of a Black government have kept the apartheid-era distrust between Black labour and white management and owners in the labour market.  Such racial distrust and resentments undermine growth not only at company, but also at national economic level.

Figures from the Council for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) show that many of the labour market conflicts which appear inexplicable are often reactions to racism, although couched in one or other industrial issue. Employees respond to continuous belittling, demeaning tones and attitudes by managers – and strike for what appears often an unrelated issue.

This means millions of Black employees experience nothing but alienation in the workplace every day. Employees do not have a sense of ownership in or allegiance to firms, beyond their pay cheque. The low status of ordinary employees means they suffer from lack of dignity, a low sense of worth and low morale.

Alienated employees are unlikely to enthusiastically implement company strategy, participate in organizational change and lift their performance. Productivity suffers. Yet, for companies to gain the edge in increasing competitive product markets, the quality of their products is crucial.

South Africa’s non-participatory workplaces undermine performance, blunt companies’ competitive edge, and cuts into profits. It is also harmful to society.

Alienation, discrimination and assaults on their dignity at the workplace also undermine employees’ health, cause anxiety and poison the affected employees’ personal relations outside their jobs too.

With their dignity crushed by humiliating daily racism, lack of meaning in their jobs and low pay, and no stake in the company – and the perceived comparable comfort of their white managers - it is not surprising that some Black employees turn violent, burning down the factory or stealing its assets, even if it may harm themselves (employees), as it could lead to their unemployment.

The systemic alienation, anxiety and powerlessness resulting from autocratic workplaces, could push employees to withdraw from participating in political processes outside the workplace also, which again, in turn could undermine broader democracy.

Democracy in the workplace also has the possibility to boost “civic engagement and political democracy” in broader society, especially in new democracies where many people have not experienced the practice of democracy before. For example, the scholar Carole Pateman argues that the workplace is the most important place where citizens can learn the art, the practice and habits of democracy.

The democracy theorist Dahl has shown that increasing workplace democracy could have a transforming impact on individuals in companies, making them more democratically spirited.

Workplace democracy has the ability to reduce social inequalities based on race, class and gender. Black workers, women and ordinary workers are often the worse off in terms of decision-making, participation and having a voice in workplaces. Workplace democracy can empower them.

What would be the elements of workplace democracy? Employees must be treated and valued as human beings. This means that employee input in strategy formulation and implementation must be actively sought – and recognized and rewarded. Employees must be seen as stakeholders helping to solve problems, seeking solutions and developing strategies. Employees will have to be empowered to make decisions in their own sphere at their workstations without having to wait for approval from supervisors.

It is crucial that employers provide employees with relevant training that will not only make them productive in their current jobs, but in the broader economy. South African companies should introduce more job rotation to not only get employees to acquire more skills, but also to make them familiar to all aspects of the firm, and therefore increasing their performance.

Employees must be rewarded for increases in productivity, just like CEOs are being rewarded in the form of bonuses, shares and increasing employee ownership.  

The current policy of Black economic empowerment (BEE) in which individual political capitalists close to the ANC leadership are given a slice of white-owned companies must be scrapped. Employee economic empowerment (EEE), where employees are empowered with company shareholding, profit-sharing, relevant skills training and asset transfer, such as housing, is a more sustainable option.  

Social pacts at the firm level, between employees, management and trade unions, in which they jointly agree on productivity targets, industrial relations and certain decisions – and return for rewards - has greater potential to deepen workplace democracy.

A big source of resentment of Black people against whites is white assets, social capital and capital accumulated during colonialism and apartheid – and Black deprivation of these resources through official state policy, and the generational cumulative impact of these in a highly competitive age where asset advantage acquired previously in many cases determine current and future prosperity.  Engendering the perception of fair redistribution of assets in South Africa will contribute a great deal to tackling distrust between Black and white citizens.

Distrust between white and Black citizens and between white business and Black workers; and prejudice by whites against Black people, and resentment by Blacks against whites, will be greatly reduced by increasing the assets – housing stock, share-ownership and relevant technical skills - of ordinary black South Africans.  

Of course the other part of the equation is that government will have to deliver public services more effectively, manage public resources and govern more honestly.

* William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg.



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