Despite being subject to the same range of pressures commonly associated with globalisation, there remains considerable diversity in the manner in which firms—and countries—manage their human resources. This can be ascribed to variations in accumulation regimes and modes of regulation, themselves products of specific historical experiences (see Grahl and Teague, 2000:160-178). In this chapter we explore the context within which the South African human resource management (HRM) system operates, and the implications thereof in terms of actual HR managerial practice within the firm.
During the apartheid era, the South African economy was characterised by high levels of protectionism, backed up by a range of development incentives geared towards the nurturing of an indigenous industrial sector, with state-owned enterprises dominating key sectors such as steel and transport. A premium was placed on job creation for white workers in the state sector. The desire to heighten racial segregation led to a range of ‘decentralisation’ incentives, aimed at encouraging firms to relocate to the rural periphery, a policy that proved both costly and unsustainable. The South African economy faced increasing difficulties in the late 1970s and 1980s on account of increasing disinvestment—as a result of increasing political resistance and international pressure—and direct economic sanctions, most notably a fuel embargo. Weeks has noted that, ‘From 1980 to the end of 1993, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) rose in only four years, and only in one after 1984, for an annual average decline of almost 1 per cent for the fourteen years’ (1999:796).
The government’s continued commitment to the complete political exclusion of Africans resulted not only in continued union militancy at the workplace but also increasing political protests, culminating in the mass insurrection of 1983-7. The latter led to investor flight increasing to unprecedented levels, with a capital outflow of over R8000 million in 1985 alone (CSS, 1996). Unprecedented levels of mass resistance to apartheid both within workplace and township in the 1980s