Academic journal article SA Journal of Human Resource Management

The Human Resource Function Contribution to Human Development in South Africa

Academic journal article SA Journal of Human Resource Management

The Human Resource Function Contribution to Human Development in South Africa

Article excerpt


Almost by definition, the role of HR practitioners is concerned with people development. It may, however, be asked whether they can achieve success in this area if their organisations are situated in a society with generally low levels of human development. More than 15 years ago, Ulrich and researchers at the University of Michigan (Ulrich, 1997) said that one of the key roles of an HR practitioner was that of Employee Champion; it was later changed to that of Employee Advocate. This article will explore whether the time has come in South Africa to reaffirm the importance of that role and redefine it to that of People Advocate, so that it refers to people both inside and outside the organisation:

If successful, the HR professional has the opportunity to become central to the effectiveness not only of their organisation but to also have an impact on the social and economic environment in which they operate. If there was ever a time in the sun for HR that time is now (Boninelli & Meyer, 2011, p. 446).

Seventeen years after the first democratic elections in South Africa the indicators of quality of life for the large majority of the population of the country show that insufficient progress has been made in reducing inequality, poverty and quality of life (UNDP, 2010a). Although the economic status of the country is, in international comparative terms, described as 'upper middle income', large numbers of extremely poor people have little opportunity to participate in and benefit from the economy (NPC, 2011). South Africa is a divided and unequal society (NPC, 2011), but, as Ramphele (2009) pointed out, we have only one economy and it is the distribution of the benefits that divides society.

Human Resource (HR) practitioners work almost exclusively in the formal sectors of the economy (including the public sector), and in organisations of 150 employees or more. They therefore interact with, or impact on, considerably fewer than the 9.2 million people employed in the formal sector (18% of the population). Much modern HR work has to do with sophisticated HR practices aimed at engaging knowledge workers in order to drive organisational success in a modern, global business world (Boninelli & Meyer, 2011). Can it therefore be said that HR work is elitist and that HR practitioners work in splendid isolation, oblivious of the inequalities of society and the ravaging effects of the poverty around them?

Little attention has been paid to the linkage between HR work and human development in the country. Some influential HR commentators in South Africa introduced the idea in 2009 that HR practice rooted in the developed world was not appropriate in the specific context of developing countries in general and South Africa in particular (Crous, 2010; Sibiya, 2010). The purpose of this research study, carried out during 2010 and 2011, was to investigate whether this was true and, if it was true, to find ways in which South African HR practice could be developed so as to be more appropriate in the South African context.

There are few references in the literature to the linkage between HRM (human resource management) and human development. Researchers in the contextual paradigm of HRM (e.g. Brewster, 2007) have emphasised the interaction between societal institutions, national and local culture and HRM, but have not specifically discussed the interaction of the level of human development in a society and HRM practice. In a series of research studies conducted after 1997 Ulrich, Brockbank, Johnson, Sandholtz and Younger (2008) made the first mention of the necessity for HR practitioners to interpret social context in relation to the organisation's HR strategy. In South Africa, commentators such as Nel (2010) and Bernstein (2010) discussed the role of business in societal development, but make no specific mention of HRM in this role.

The research problem for the research study was that HRM as practised in South Africa was not aligned to its socio-economic context. …

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