The history of labour relations unfortunately includes the very sad chapter of slavery. Slavery was recognized and practiced in nearly all parts of the world. As slaves were human beings the laws surrounding them included numerous rules which are, in today’s world, difficult to comprehend and not reconcilable with any notion of the basic human rights.
Roman law for example enshrined a great contradiction: on the one hand slaves were property, just like a book or dog, on the other, they were also human, and to make full use of them required that their human characteristics – their intellect and the opportunities it offered – be recognized.
In South Africa slavery was officially abolished on 1 December 1834 in the former Cape Colony. This followed the Slavery Abolition Bill of 1833 passed in the British House of Commons which applied to Britain and all its colonies.
Although slavery was officially abolished in 1834 the reality of life in South Africa showed something else. As South Africa was ruled by white South Africans (in the colonies and former Boer republics) the position of many black South Africans was very similar to that of a slave. The notion of human rights and freedom was not something bestowed to black people.
Prior to the discovery of gold and diamonds the economy was agrarian with the main economic activity being agriculture. Labour relations were governed by various Acts including the Master and Servant Act 15 of 1856. The name of this Act reflects the general view of that time, that the employment relations were regarded as being a “master and servant” relationship.
Following the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa mining activity soon became the main economic force in the country. White workers were grouped in various trade unions. In 1911 the Mines and Works Act reserved various types of work for white labourers. This era was characterized by numerous strikes and general unrest in the labour market. The economic depression followed and in 1922 the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 was enacted. This Act recognized white trade unions but created a separate inferior system for blacks.
This Act was later renamed the Labour Relations Act of 1956 and in 1979 the Act was amended to allow for the freedom of association for all people irrespective of race or sex.
Between 1991 -1994 the new democratic South Africa was born which brought with it the Constitution of 1993. Following 1994 all laws were re-written to be in line with Constitution. This included the Labour Relations Act.
Today the South African worker is protected by numerous Acts which include amongst others: the Labour Relations Act of 1995, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997(BCEA), the Employment Equity Act of 1998 etc.
These Acts enshrine many employee rights and include the right:
- not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against
- to be provided with appropriate resources and equipment
- to have safe working conditions
- to receive the agreed remuneration on the agreed date and time
- to receive fair labour practices
- to be treated with dignity and respect
- to non-victimisation in claiming rights and using procedures
- to leave benefits and other basic conditions of employment as stipulated in the BCEA.
The various Acts and Codes of Conduct in South Africa are world class and has little room for improvement…in its written form. It flows from a painful past into a system aimed at protecting all people from future discrimination.
Unfortunately a set of rules cannot change what lies in the hearts of men and women. The notion of “Master and Servant” still rests deep in the minds of many people. This very critical (but incorrect!) starting point means that on the surface rules are shown to be complied with, but that the implementation remains superficial. The employer “master” simply does not believe in the rules or does not accept the humanity of the employee.
In Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he puts forward a principle-centered approach to both personal and interpersonal effectiveness. Rather than focusing on altering the outward manifestations of your behavior and attitudes, it aims to adapt your inner core, character, and motives.
The core of this philosophy is that you can change the essential (deep rooted inner) view you have of someone or of a certain group! Not just change the make up, the smile…the service contract. Essentially change the way you view others…including your employees.
Our firm’s essential values are: “To recognize the value of people and the basic right of each human to be treated fairly and honestly”.
Yes we must deliver service, yes we must push boundaries in client satisfaction but we may never forget or neglect the people who make those things possible. In this spirit we have always strived to improve the lives of our employees and have tried to influence their lives in a positive manner.
So yes we have tried and still try to improve the lives of our employees but sometimes it works the other way around. Many times the actions of an employee silently & softly improves the life of the employer!
For example the work and life of Peter Makweng. Peter started working at our firm on 2 January 2002 as a messenger and driver. Peter arrived at work before anybody else and did not leave any unfinished matters for the next day. Deliveries which were essential and urgent were delivered with a smile and on time. If a delivery had to go to the hand of “Person X” Peter did not stop at anything to ensure that Person X and only Person X got his delivery. He was absolutely trustworthy and reliable. Even when his physical condition failed his work never failed. Peter Makweng sadly passed away on 4 January 2021.
Peter changed my personal view on many things and showed me how someone can improve the lives of all he touched with simple clear dedication and an honest smile. Even though he may be viewed in the world as “just a messenger” he was far more than that. He was our friend and honored colleague. He will be dearly missed in our firm and will not be forgotten.
…and maybe to return to essential premise of this article….we (as employers and human beings in general) must ensure (and change where necessary) our deep routed (but incorrect) core views on the worth of our brother and sisters in the world…otherwise people like Peter Makweng will not be recognized for their true value….we must write the principles of humanity in our hearts…then the paperwork will easily follow!
Jacques van der Merwe
Jacques van der Merwe Maja Inc.
10 January 2021
*The views expressed here are my personal views on this theme and are not to be used or copied in any manner. It may not be interpreted as anything else ,as my personal opinion. It is not legal advice in any case. Should you wish to obtain specific advice on any matter this should be done by taking up personal contact with myself or any one of our attorneys.
Roman Law in context -David Johnston 1999
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People -Stephen Covey