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.

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.''

Koopman responded. He changed company training course rules, allowing individual workers to set their own curriculum, move at their own pace, and measure progress by their own individual starting points. He shelved the ``presidents'' system in favor of five-member ``governments'' for each branch. In consultation with workers, he drew up a company ``bill of rights.'' This enshrined not only fair employment rules, but workers' say in the company's policy, planning, and personnel decisions. Finally, he inaugurated programs for profit sharing that have widened to include stock options for black workers.

Day-to-day decisions of profit and loss still reside largely in the hands of Koopman and of appointed ``operations officers'' who sit on the five-man branch governments. But two of these operations officers are now black. A half-dozen other blacks hold their branch's No. 2 portfolio and are on track for the top job.

Staff turnover at Cashbuild has fallen from 126 percent in 1983 to 9 percent. ``Shrinkage'' - the industry euphemism for worker theft - has dipped from 1.4 percent to 0.4 percent.

Although other companies have been hit by strikes or consumer boycotts, particularly after the state of emergency, Cashbuild has not been targeted.

Other companies have moved to meet the aspirations of their largely black staffs. The SA Perm, a once stagnant savings-and-loan giant, has embarked on an energetic equal-opportunity program, shifted its client focus from suburbia to the black townships, and publicly criticized government race policies. The firm is now showing a handsome profit and, adds manager Bob Tucker, on the basis of a recent internal opinion survey, there seem to be precious few opposed to the political course he has chosen.

Raymond Ackerman's huge Pick and Pay supermarket chain assumed a high-profile stance against race discrimination even before Koopman or the SA Perm began their overhauls. Blacks were brought into supervisory positions, given housing and other benefits. ``Ackerman really does listen, I think,'' says Mrs. Zimbler, who consults for the chain.

Clive Weil of Checkers supermarket chain has recently moved to disseminate a company code endorsing ``freedom of association,... friendship to our trade unions,... equal opportunity.'' That has paid off in what he terms ``an improved climate'' on the shop floor.

Both Checkers and Pick and Pay were briefly stricken by wildcat protests after the emergency proclamation and the arrest of many black union activists.

Not all South African businessmen, by any means, agree with such strategies. Zimbler and other consultants say that only a small minority has gone even a short way down Cashbuild's path. One consultant says managers often ask, ``Why must I talk to my staff? What does that have to do with it?''

Koopman has one answer: survival. He says he has changed to remain a part of an evolving South Africa. ``I have two little children. And if President Botha turns off the lights, I'm throwing on the generator.''

This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to S. Africa firm finds blackwhite power sharing pays
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today