Lessons from the shopfloor

Alex | Oct 01, 2009
Mampuru Maseke, a black Eskom employee, describes the human obstacles to achieving genuine equality at work.

Eskom is one of South Africa's largest and most progressive institutions. Among the top five utilities in the world in terms of size and sales, it has assets of over R75 billion. At the end of 1999 it had 34,027 employees - a figure which is down by more than 5,000 in two years. It was also one of the earliest to adopt strongly progressive policies both on extension of the electricity grid to previously disadvantaged communities and on its own internal transformation.

Specifically Eskom set itself the employment equity target that 50 per cent of all management, professional and supervisory staff should be black by the end of this year. It is on track to meet this commitment: by the end of 1998, 39 per cent of these categories was black and by the end of 1999, 45 per cent. This transformation is particularly striking at the top. Chairman Reuel Khoza is black, nine of the 16 members of the electricity council and six of the eight directors are black. Nonetheless, further down the organisation affirmative action has run into considerable difficulty, for Eskom relies on a series of technical and engineering skills that are hard to find among blacks thanks to the inheritance of the bantu education system. Verwoerd's infamous dictum that blacks had no need of mathematics and should not be taught it is still reflected today in the small number of blacks with advanced qualifications in maths and science.

Eskom uses the Paterson job-grading system that grades all individual positions in terms of the complexity involved in taking business decisions. The system starts with the A band of unskilled workers, moves through the B band of semi-skilled to the C band of skilled workers and entry-level graduates. Above this lie middle-management levels of lower, middle and upper professionals and managers followed by the E band, which consists of senior management such as power station managers and finally the F band of the chief executive level. There is no difficulty in ensuring the A and B bands are 50 per cent black, but problems begin with the C level - into which I was placed when I joined Eskom in October 1995.

Before 1994 there were very few blacks in the C band and these were generally in the industrial relations and human resource departments. After 1994 all the newly-recruited affirmative action appointees tended to be put in the C band. Until then it was common to find relatively uneducated whites who had worked as qualified artisans being promoted to the C band as engineering assistants even though they lacked formal qualifications. Essentially they were there because there was a shortage of good applicants and because they often had relevant experience. Once blacks began to be recruited for such posts there was naturally an expansion in the number of appointable candidates and, as a result, a tendency for the employers to demand higher qualifications. Thus blacks found that they were working alongside a number of whites who lacked the qualifications that were now been insisted upon.

Salaries were supposed to be secret but the trade unions would sometimes get access to the data and discover that many whites were earning far more than their black counterparts. Sometimes black managers had actually taken the decision to pay whites more. When asked to justify such anomalies the usual answer would be that pay was performance related. Eskom uses a system of key personal indicators setting targets and parameters for performance, but inevitably there is still a strong element of subjectivity in the rating of individual performance. Naturally this has led to resentment and some degree of tension.
Until the 1990s Eskom was an apartheid institution not only in the sense that it was part of the government-owned structure of white South Africa but most of its employees at management level were Afrikaans-speakers who tended to vote for the National Party or Conservative Party. The few qualified blacks who existed in that atmosphere generally found it pretty hostile and have described how they were blatantly snubbed and sometimes publicly humiliated. Some of the early affirmative action appointees not only met with an icy atmosphere at work but would be given few responsibilities. Although they might receive good salaries, they would spend many of their working hours browsing through newspapers. This was humiliating, undermining and naturally led to criticism from the whites around them who were working much harder.

At Eskom coloureds and Indians are regarded as black and in practice the black quota was often boosted by appointing large numbers of coloureds, Indians and sometimes Africans from foreign countries. This left local blacks very much at the bottom of the heap. Africans within the organisation also felt that most whites found it far easier to work closely with Indian and coloureds who would be promoted not just because they were often better qualified but because they were closer to whites in social terms.

The significance of this is heightened by the central role that Eskom gives to mentoring. White supervisors are supposed to mentor previously disadvantaged individuals within the C band, passing on their knowledge and helping to improve levels of competence. However, mentoring works best when it is reinforced by social contact outside of work - when the supervisor and supervised meet up at a braaivleis or other event. Whites are much more likely to do this in the case of coloureds and Indians than of Africans. My first mentor in 1995 told me repeatedly that he did not have time to mentor me, although he was actually mentoring other whites who were Afrikaans-speakers like him. He was clearly far more comfortable in their company than he was in mine. I learnt virtually nothing from him. My second mentor left after only three months to go to Zambia, saying that affirmative action meant that there were few prospects of promotion for him. My third mentor had the same sentiments and left after only four months. Thus I have never had a successful mentor. The only real advice I get is from other blacks, but I would like help from whites; I know they are more experienced and I have more to learn from them.

This problem of mentoring is reinforced by several other factors. The first is that by setting targets to be achieved by the end of this year, Eskom has given the impression to many whites that affirmative action will then be over. This has led to a holding-on mentality. Moreover, whites within the C band are perfectly aware that there is a great drive to appoint more black managers. Those whom they mentor successfully are likely to be appointed managers over them before long, whereas their own chances of getting managerial jobs are very much slighter. Whites have no incentive to assist blacks to become their future bosses and this defence of their self-interest may be backed up by racist assumptions.

Affirmative action policies have already had some results that reinforce the views of the sceptics. A number of former exiles with no practical experience of mechanical or electrical engineering were recruited early on and given responsibilities for which they were not adequately prepared. Naturally they failed to perform competently and lost confidence. Such cases lie heavy on the minds of white mentors who harbour the racist suspicion that blacks are never likely to perform well in engineering. This early wave of affirmative action recruitment was carried out far too quickly in order to improve the demographics at Eskom. If affirmative action means throwing people into the deep end unprepared to swim it is no favour to anybody. It leads to distrust between the races.

White engineers and technicians are sometimes coerced by the professional code of the South African Engineering Council and also by Eskom into mentoring their black colleagues. But this is almost bound to be a failure since experience shows that any such forced relationship rarely works. To succeed the mentor must be genuinely interested and want the other person to do well. White mentors sometimes try to demoralise and depress their black juniors by telling them how difficult it is to succeed in engineering and some even suggest that blacks would do better in the sporting or entertainment worlds. These racial stereotypes are still very powerful.

Much the same dynamic affects the position of white consultants. When an affirmative action appointee does not perform well Eskom usually hires the white former incumbent of that post to act as a consultant to help the appointee. He has generally retired with a nice package and when recalled as a consultant - now earning an extra salary on top - has no incentive to help the black appointee become fully competent for then his role will end. Thus blacks see white engineers go out of the front door with fat packages and then return through the back door earning twice as much as before. We still end up with whites earning a great deal more than blacks.

In engineering, as in other professions, there is a great deal of tacit knowledge, that is to say knowledge that is not in the books or manuals but which is critical to the successful operation of machinery programmes and routines. Again, white engineers have very little incentive to share their wealth of tacit knowledge with their black colleagues. Indeed they are perfectly aware that this tacit knowledge is a trump card that will enable them keep jobs that would otherwise be under threat. The heart of the matter is that the majority of white technicians and engineers are not committed to affirmative action, do not like it and indeed see it as a threat to their own performance bonuses and jobs. If they accept the policy at all it is only because it is pushed down their throats. Africans on the other hand feel angry that Afrikaners were quite happy to use affirmative action to promote Afrikaners when they were in power and cannot see why affirmative action for blacks should now be any less acceptable.

There is a great deal of suspicion and mistrust between the racial groups and blacks will continue to believe very strongly that past inequalities must be remedied and that anything which leaves intact historical injustices is unacceptable.