S. Africa firm finds blackwhite power sharing pays
Company director Albert Koopman yanked off his tie and jacket, sprawled onto the ground, and invited the black labor activist to step on him. ``You get one chance! After that, you must stop blaming me for the sins of 300 years of white South Africans. After that, you must allow us to try to work together!'' That was three years ago. Now Mr. Koopman's construction-supply company, Cashbuild, is one of South Africa's most politically radical private companies - and one of its most profitable. Blacks, who account for nearly all of his work force, sit on branch management committees, run two branches, and share in the profits.Skip to next paragraph
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The black union member that Koopman challenged, Kaiser Sihlangu, is no longer a union member. He is the No. 2 man in one of the company's 30 branches, and may well take over there within the next six months.
``We genuinely feel we're on a single team now, not as whites or blacks,'' Mr. Sihlangu says. ``We have a sense that our advancement depends on ourselves, that the opportunities are there.''
The firm now reports an annual before-tax profit of nearly $2 million. ``My critics classify me as a radical, a leftist, a socialist,'' says Koopman, a Johannesburg native. ``Why doesn't anyone call me a capitalist?''
Cashbuild is one of at least several dozen firms, large and small, that have reacted to South Africa's political conflict by moving to address black grievances and aspirations.
Some of the attempts at company reform have fared well; some are still unfolding. Others, though not Koopman's, have been jolted off track by general black resentment over the government's June 12 declaration of a nationwide state of emergency.
``But this kind of experiment is critically important to the overall future of South Africa,'' says Corinne Zimbler, a psychologist who consults for a number of local companies. ``The essential is that people like Koopman - not many others, perhaps - have actually gone out to meet their workers, listened, and heard what's being said.''
For Koopman, this has been a long, sometimes painful, process. He entered the business world straight out of high school - a ``good white South African boy,'' he says, with a family tree rooted deep in the Afrikaner community that invented, then administered, apartheid. In 1978, he founded Cashbuild. It did well for a while, but by 1982 the firm had peaked and seemed to be headed downhill.
He called a meeting of his fellow managers, asked what the problem was, and was told he ran a ``pompous, egocentric, autocratic'' company. ``And these were the white guys!'' says Koopman, chuckling at the memory. In the following 2 years, he set out to hear, and address, the even sharper complaints of his black workers.
There were false starts and setbacks. At first, he tried to consult with white and black employees separately. ``That, after all, was the norm back then.'' When he sensed a need for black participation, he responded by having blacks send a ``president'' from each branch to consult, then ``showered'' the rank and file with benefits, such as days off and special food packages.
But results were negligible and short lived. ``We were scratching the surface,'' says Koopman. Increasingly, he he sensed a fundamental estrangement from the blacks. Benefits, even pay, were not the crucial issues. ``They wanted a real say over the workplace. They wanted human dignity, a sense of being treated like a fellow human being. There is just no other way to put it.''