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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 025-106-E
Division Number: III
Professional Group: Library Services to Multicultural Populations
Joint Meeting with: Management and Marketing
Meeting Number: 106
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Managing Multicultural Staff in a South African University Library

Heather M. Edwards
University of the Witwatersrand Libraries
South Africa


South Africa's "apartheid" past has resulted in equity issues currently playing a prominent role in the economic and organisational life of the country, with unfair labour practices and discrimination against minority groups outlawed through new legislation. The University of the Witwatersrand, with a liberal tradition, has equality and diversity issues strongly represented in its Mission statement, and the Library, working to a similar ethic, is actively creating a diverse workforce. Building on a multicultural base that has existed for many years, we are looking carefully at Library staff profiles, and promoting the appointment of black people, especially to senior positions.


South Africa's labour history during the forty-six years of rule by the Nationalist Party, was marred by apartheid, discriminatory legislation and exploitation. There were marked disparities in employment and income within the labour market, which created pronounced disadvantages for certain categories of people. With few exceptions, black people (1) in this country were poorly educated in segregated schools and were denied the opportunities and advantages that their white compatriots enjoyed.

Far-reaching changes have occurred in South Africa since 1994, when, for the first time in its history, a democratic election took place and a black majority government was returned to power. In its election campaign the African Nationalist Congress had promised its electorate a better deal and relief from the poverty that stalks the lives of a large percentage of our population. Expectations in the black community were high and the Government needed to deliver. It was not merely a case of repealing old discriminatory legislation; there was an urgent need for positive action that would result in positive change.

An early achievement of the Government was a new Labour Relations Act (1995), which provided legislation for dealing with unfair labour practices. Although this Act did much to regulate the employer/employee relationship, it was felt by many that change was not occurring fast enough. Calls came for the demography of the country to be reflected in the demography of the company; counter voices argued that skills cannot be developed overnight. The South African economy, in the doldrums and not experiencing the anticipated degree of post-apartheid growth, was resulting in more retrenchments than opportunities. The Government therefore decided to enforce change through the passing of the Employment Equity Act of 1998 (2), which would promote the constitutional right of equality, eliminate unfair discrimination in employment, and achieve a diverse workforce broadly representative of our people. To this end, the Act requires every designated employer (3) to implement affirmative action measures through conducting an analysis of employment policies, practices, and procedures in order to identify barriers affecting certain people; preparing an employment equity plan; and reporting regularly to the Department of Labour. A Commission for Employment Equity has been appointed, and non-compliance with the Act may result in referral to the Labour Court, or the imposition of heavy fines. In a complete about turn, apartheid legislation has now been replaced by equity legislation.

South Africans have varied feelings on employment equity. Nhlapo (1996)(4) suggests that the most serious obstacle in the way of accommodation between black and white people is simply that we don't know enough about each other, and we don't much care! Human (1996)(5) states that although South Africa has undergone tremendous change, living in a country can create a certain myopia. One doesn't see the larger picture, which is that a change in dialogue doesn't always reflect a change of heart. A manager may think he or she is committed to affirmative action, but then explains how scarce really good candidates are, that affirmative action employees demand very high salaries and leave easily for even higher salaries, and that they require more training and aren't "up to speed". Meanwhile, blacks have a very different perspective. They experience anger and frustration, and feel that nothing has changed. Leon (1999), leader of the opposition Democratic Party in South Africa, has stated publically that he disapproves of the Employment Equity Act as it serves only to divide the country along racial lines once more.

Affirmative action in itself is not enough. More important is the actual management of the diversity created by affirmative action. Norris (1996)(6) feels that for diversity to succeed it must form part of an organisation's strategic management process. The historically white/Eurocentric male-dominated culture must change to reflect South Africa's diversity, total quality management must take place to address fears that increasing diversity may lead to a lowering of standards, participative management is required, and human resource development becomes a key issue.

A manager who is prejudiced against people from a specific racial group is unlikely to manage those people effectively and to encourage their strengths and talents. Thiederman (1998)(7) warns us to stay alert to the human tendency to judge harshly those who are different from ourselves. This is especially true when we are uncomfortable or afraid - for example, when the job market is tight, or when we feel someone is getting preferential treatment. She exhorts us to see people for who they are, not through the distorting screen of our own fears and judgements.

Norris (8) identifies three developmental stages in the move towards managing multicultural organisations. The first is monocultural. Thankfully there are few of these left in South Africa. The second is non-discriminatory, characterised by a sincere desire to eliminate the majority's unfair advantage, but retaining its dominant culture. Thirdly, a multicultural organisation is one in the process of becoming, or which has become, diverse in the most visionary sense - reflecting the contributions and interests of diverse groups in its mission, operations and services, and committing itself to eradicate all forms of social discrimination. The majority of organisations in South Africa are in the middle or non-discriminatory stage.

The University of the Witwatersrand is a multicultural organisation. Its history of protest against discriminatory laws and unacceptable practices reflects its strong liberal ethic, and more recently, it has attempted to stay at the forefront of progressive change. An Affirmative Action Officer was appointed in 1994, and in the same year, an Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Employment Policy was issued (9). While the University continues to seek the best person for the job, efforts are made to search actively for candidates from under-represented groups for selection and promotion. For existing staff there are programs which give underrepresented groups the opportunity to advance their skills so that they can compete more effectively. In 1998 Wits revised its Mission Statement (10), and five of its six commitments deal with issues of tolerance, equality, freedom from racism and sexism, and cultural diversity.

Wits Library has for many years attempted to employ black people across the range of job grades. In this respect, we were ahead of many other "historically white" universities in South Africa. Although our staff profile has improved steadily over several years, we recognise that there is still an urgent need to appoint and retain more blacks in senior positions. Our efforts in this area have been restricted by a university-wide rationalisation process, a low staff turnover rate of 2-3%, and a high unemployment rate in the country (40%) resulting in low job mobility. This limits opportunities to act vigorously in the employment and promotion of black people. Library staff profiles of 1988 and 1998 do however reflect positive change. Senior posts (14) ten years ago were all held by whites with the exception of one oriental. By 1998, this had changed to 10 whites, 3 blacks, 2 coloureds and 1 oriental. Ten years ago the majority of black staff occupied the lower grades in the library. Now they are widely spread, with several in professional and managerial or supervisory positions. White staff have dropped from 88 to 49 full-time equivalent members, while black FTEs have increased from 69 to 80. The Wits Library staff profile now consists of 57.5% blacks, 35.5% whites, 3% coloureds, 2% Asians, and 2% orientals.

Black Library staff are encouraged to study and improve their skills, thereby placing themselves in a better position for advancement, and bursaries are granted for this purpose. This situation is not without tension, as people obtaining professional qualifications have high expectations, and do not wish to wait for an appropriate position in Wits Library to become vacant. We loose promising staff in this way, yet one cannot blame them for moving on. They have opportunities today that their parents never had in the past.

At Wits Library, we consciously apply equity guidelines. In the selection process, where two candidates appear to be equal, the post will normally be offered to the black candidate. Where a white candidate appears to have a slight advantage but a black applicant has the personality and potential to succeed, we will appoint the black person. However, if a white candidate is ahead of other applicants in all respects, the job is offered to that person on the basis of merit. We need to be able to justify our choice if questioned by the Equity Officer, the trade unions, the Library staff generally, and the candidates themselves. In some instances we have established mentoring, which has proved successful. However, one or two of our staff still have difficulty in accepting that a minority person in a high level job isn't just window dressing or tokenism. We are working on this problem through proving the capability and talent of such appointees.

Fehnel (1993) of the Ford Foundation in South Africa (11), advises us to look at ourselves and answer truthfully on questions of motives and values within the context of post-apartheid society, and this is wise advice. Perhaps, however, in the final instance, we should recall the words of Thiederman (1998)(12) that, although cultural diversity is a serious business, it must not become so serious that people forget to see each other as people first and foremost. We need to remember the need for simple respect and courtesy as we seek to understand the differences between people.


1. "Black" in South African terms includes Indian, Chinese and Coloured people.

2. South Africa. Employment Equity Act, No. 55, 1998. Preamble.

3. A "designated employer" is generally one who employs 50 or more employees.

4. Nhlapo, T. Campus unrest: is it necessary in a democracy? Human Resource Management. July 1996, p8.

5. Human, L. Diversity during transformation. Human Resource Management. March 1996, p1-12.

6. Norris, B. Manage diversity or sink. People Dynamics. July 1996, p39.

7. Thiederman, S. Association Management. July 1998 v50 (7) p28.

8. Norris, B. Op cit. p37.

9. University of the Witwatersrand. University Policy on Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Employment for Academic and Support Services Staff. August 1994. Doc S94/174.

10. University of the Witwatersrand, Wits Today: Mission Statement. (1998).

11. Fehnel, R (Ford Foundation). Quoted in Pavlich, G and Orkin, M. Diversity and Quality: Academic Diversity at South African Tertiary Institutions. Johannesburg, 1993.

12. Thiederman, S. Op cit


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