Today, 5 December 2018, it is now five years later as we remember his passing and his life. The question is whether the world is a better place today. We mourned his passing, but we continue to celebrate his legacy as we are reminded of his legacy today. Recognised globally as an icon, no other South African has had more impact on so many people throughout the world than Nelson Mandela. He is the best example of true moral leadership in the most difficult of times. We have much to thank Tata Madiba for one of the most successful political transitions the world has ever seen. His biggest achievement was the eradication of apartheid, thereby helping the country to turn around from an oppressive regime to a fully-fledged modern democracy.
Perhaps it is not a co-incidence that one of South Africa’s top HR professionals, Professor Shirley Zinn launched her book “Swimming Upstream” the previous year. The book covers major lessons in life as she grew up in the Cape Flats during some of the worst years of our apartheid past. Like Mandela, Shirley refused to accept life as a victim. She prioritised education and career growth as two key aspects for achieving success in life and business, despite all the odds against her. It is therefore very appropriate for Shirley to dedicate a full chapter of her book to South Africa today. In that chapter she refers continuously to Mandela’s life and contribution to South Africa. She asserts: “Having experienced Mandela’s leadership, we cannot slip back into anything less.”
Today I want to reflect on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Specifically, I want to internalise these lessons in my own life, not only at home, but also at work. As the leader of the liberation struggle and later as first democratic president of South Africa, Mandela’s life provides us with a powerful legacy – and some profound lessons for us as human resource (HR) professionals:
In conclusion, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela offers HR professionals with ample opportunities to live his legacy on a daily basis. Inequality and skills gaps cannot be perpetuated. A few years back Mandela made this statement: “The future of South African businesses will be evaluated largely on its human resources development.” Skills development is at the centre of human resource management, and as a community of professionals it is our duty to society to rise to the occasion in developing the people of South Africa. Again, this week, the World Bank expressed a concern about the quality of education and skills development in South Africa. We need to turn this situation around if we want to become a successful nation.
Also, Mandela labelled affirmative action “corrective action,” and twenty four years after the birth of our democracy, we are still haunted by the reality of apartheid’s inequalities. Thus, HR professionals could play a key role in addressing the two national challenges of poor people development and inequality, given the fact that these two issues go hand in hand. Therefore, rectifying these gaps is not only key to sound people management, but also an imperative for nation-building and stability.
However, today, as we remember Mandela, it is not only the sceptics, but broader society who will echo Shirley Zinn’s words that “Madiba left a great void in the leadership of our country.” The question is whether other leaders in political parties, business, government, labour, civil and broader society are able to rise to the occasion and lead the country and our organisations to the type of country Mandela was dreaming about.
As a community of more than 120 000 HR professionals in South Africa, we are a strong group of change agents who can continue being the custodians of humanity in the workplace and socio-economic environments of employees. The recently launched HR Governance Position Paper by SABPP the previous month propagates a more human approach to corporate governance. SABPP will continue to play our role in building the country Mandela was dreaming about. The previous year SABPP launched HR Citizen,an HR volunteering initiative to mobilise HR professionals as socio-economic change agents. We are going to drive change within and outside our organisations as active citizens. This drive includes implementing the National Development Plan (NDP) within our sphere of influence and in society at large.
We accept the challenge posed to us by Shirley Zinn: “If we only did ten percent of what Madiba did, we could move this country forward significantly.” As Nelson Mandela said: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Marius Meyer lectures in HR Management at Stellenbosch University. He is also the Chairperson of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the HR quality assurance and professional body.