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Thinking globally and acting locally


In this edited extract from her book, Nolitha Fakude writes about diversity and inclusion in Sasol operations worldwide

Operating in 35 countries and carrying a secondary listing on the New York Stock Exchange, Sasol was a global player in all respects. In a refreshing role reversal from the norm in those days, our global offices looked to SA for policy.

If we needed to develop or change a human resources policy, it could not be done in Germany or China, but rather had to come through our head office in Rosebank.

As executive director of Strategy and HR, I owned every HR policy, and as the third-most senior person in the organisation (after the CEO and CFO), my responsibilities and perspectives both in terms of our business possibilities and the larger transformation agenda grew tremendously.

It was fascinating for me to see how the South African perspective on transformation was valued globally because of the complexity of our society, given its transition since 1994.

International business people were extremely curious to know more about how South African businesses approached and negotiated their BEE, employment equity and skills development responsibilities.

The South African perspective always adds value to any conversation about transformation. Due to the transformation laws that are unique to our business environment, South African leaders and managers must deal with more complexities than their counterparts in Europe or even the US, especially when it comes to our legislative framework around labour issues and our transitioning culture.

My international exposure with Sasol also demonstrated the degree to which our isolation as a country pre-1994 had affected our perceptions of the rest of the world. On the one hand, South Africans are afflicted with a global inferiority complex, believing the best and greatest to always be somewhere else "out there", while on the other we tend to greatly underestimate our counterparts on the African continent.

When it comes to benchmarking, you often do still need to look abroad, but South African business also demonstrates some of the best in terms of our processes, especially when it comes to community engagement, small and medium enterprise development, and diversity and inclusion.

I continue to find it curious that while our national inferiority complex is based in the belief that people beyond our borders do everything better, we wrongly continue to imagine that our counterparts on the continent do things worse. I have found our African counterparts smarter and sharper in their business suss and acumen than the average South African. I suspect it is partly because our African colleagues tend to seek more international exposure than we do, are more resilient emotionally, and thus frequently possess a worldlier perspective than someone who has only operated in SA.

Meanwhile, my own global exposure was growing apace. As executive director of Strategy and HR, my portfolio was extended to include Risk, Safety, Health and Environment, and Corporate Affairs - cross-cutting organisational functions that required my direct involvement in a range of policies that affected entire regions.

For instance, I worked with our team in Louisiana to develop a customised corporate affairs policy for Sasol's operations in the US, partnering with the Louisiana Economic Development Center to improve inclusion of small minority-owned businesses from the local community by applying tools from our South African BEE framework.

Such international exposure provided new vantages on the nuances of culture change and the importance of context to any programme of change. For example, we encouraged female employees in every country of operation to establish a Women's Business Forum (WBF) to support gender equity in the workplace.

In Qatar, the agenda was around mentorship projects and supporting other organisations or charitable groups. The Germany WBF focused on how to retain professional women, and the South African WBF was equally concerned with career progression and the mentorship of younger women. This made sense given that in Qatar 90% of women in the forum were still at junior management levels, whereas in SA you had women at all levels, and in Germany, government incentives for women to raise families encouraged them to take time out.

I also enjoyed learning about the similarities and differences in terms of how countries dealt with their different affirmative action efforts.

In Qatar, a country whose history and culture couldn't be more different than South Africa's, they talked about "Qatarization", a government scheme that granted employment preference to Qatari citizens and required that all Qatari citizens received a minimum salary increase - something that would have been impossible to manage in another jurisdiction.

The Mozambican government's "localisation programme" required multinational companies to submit a plan outlining skills development programmes, the number of locals in management and a process to ensure that a certain percentage of Mozambicans would eventually be involved in running operations over time.

As we interpreted policies from one country to another, we always brought it back to the need to ensure consistency and harmony with group policy. This process broadened and deepened my understanding of how we could enhance transformation efforts in South Africa.

For example, the "diversity and inclusion" concept, which is about the qualitative process that merges issues of culture change, values and creating an environment where employees with different diversity dimensions can thrive, was broadly used internationally, especially in the US at that time. By contrast, although the South African conversation certainly acknowledged "inclusion", we were far more focused on the numbers and targets around ownership and employment equity.

Seeing what was happening around culture change globally strengthened my already held conviction that we needed to keep pulling the qualitative issues (the diversity and inclusion aspects) together with the quantitative issues (the ownership and employment targets) in order to make real change.

In design, the BEE Act and Employment Equity Act were not intended to look exclusively at targets, but also to make provisions around recruitment, skills development, culture and, to a certain extent, salary equity (the income differentials). By truly merging these two concepts in practice, we could achieve so much more than the legislation has achieved.

It was with this spirit that we drove Sasol's transformation. In other words, we believed the numbers mattered, but so did the culture and environment. In fact, the two work together: without a critical mass of diverse people within your workforce, you will not create a worthwhile environment, and without a transformed environment, the "diversity" you bring cannot thrive as it should.

A final note on the "critical mass": one or two people will not make a change. You need a critical mass of diverse people in key visible positions because this is how you create role models who ensure that the system continues to evolve and grow.

• Boardroom Dancing by Nolitha Fakude is published by Pan Macmillan. A former Sasol executive, she is chair of Anglo American SA



Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER

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