The death of Nelson Mandela last week prompted memories of an early example I witnessed of the importance and international reach of the HR profession—and of SHRM.
On the morning of Sept. 8, 1994, I was still in my first year as a SHRM editor when my boss told me I should cover an unexpected meeting in the main conference room—something to do with South Africa. Grabbing a notebook, I slipped into the meeting and quickly recognized its significance.
Two diplomatic officials from the South African embassy in Washington were briefing SHRM leaders who were leaving soon to visit the country. The nation had recently abolished apartheid, elected Mandela president in April, and adopted constitutional reforms. Governments, businesses and industry groups worldwide were ending economic boycotts of the country and renewing relationships and investments. But South Africa was still reeling from the international sanctions and a long recession.
The SHRM delegation included 1994 Board Chair Gail Parker, 1993 Chair Elmer Jackson, board member Gary Howard, then-CEO Michael Losey, Vice President of International and Diversity Programs Patricia Digh, and member Wayne Swann, president of the Black Human Resource Network. They attended the annual conference of South Africa’s HR association, the Institute for Personnel Management (IPM), in mid-September, where Parker, Jackson and Losey all spoke to provide encouragement and support.
The IPM wanted to lead the way in implementing the country’s ambitious Reconstruction and Development Program, under which every government agency was to redirect 3 percent to 5 percent of its budget into a fund for social services and economic development. It wanted to help its 8,500 members and other HR and business professionals solve South Africa’s many problems, including lack of workforce skills, 16 percent unemployment, inequities in distribution of wealth, 31 percent illiteracy among adults and inadequate infrastructure. IPM leaders were eager to learn about SHRM’s diversity initiatives and U.S. affirmative action programs. The SHRM leaders pledged resources, information and other assistance to the IPM. The group also met with South Africa’s minister of Labor and its incoming ambassador to the U.S.
Although the U.S. was the largest sanctioner of South Africa, “there are really no hard feelings” between the nations’ business and government officials, Losey said. “They seek our help and we are pleased to be able to help.”
Digh’s article in the October 1994 issue of HR News, SHRM’s monthly newspaper at the time, called the mission to South Africa “one of the most important and significant international endeavors SHRM has ever undertaken.” Since then, of course, the HR profession’s influence has steadily increased. And SHRM’s global reach has extended to offices and operations in India, China, the Middle East and many other countries.
[To read Digh's 1994 article, click here.]