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How often have you asked yourself “what is wrong with South Africa” just in 2020? How many different answers have you listened to? How many of these answers were convincing to you? Have you come up with a theory?

I am sure that many of you can give me a list of reasons as to what is wrong with South Africa at the moment and I am sure that many of these reasons will hold a lot of truth and reason. I, however, specialise in the labour environment in South Africa, which is why I am going to spend the next 2 – 3 minutes explaining to you what I believe has gone wrong, and as a result, happening in South Africa’s labour market at the moment.

In a recent shocking, but expected, revelation, that the South African economy declined by 51% and that 60% of SMMEs (Small-Micro-Medium-Enterprise) are expected to close down, the main message that should have landed on everyone’s dinner table is: Change is imminent!  I do not believe in the idiosyncrasy of a “new normal”, as advocated by mainstream media, because I think that instead of feeling comfortable with a “new normal” we should be going “back to basics”1.

The most important step we need to implement, urgently, is a step towards proactive People Relations Management Strategies.  Although legally advocated for, we no longer operate in a labour system that is “all for one and one for all”. Our best bet to survive the immense downturn in our economy is to focus on the People Relations in our Organisations. Going back to basic entails Organisation’s reworking their People Relations Strategies from the core. Start recruiting with a purpose again. No Organisation, big or small, can survive without a purpose. An Organisation needs the “right” people to carry a purpose forward. Be honest, when last did you ask yourself the question “WHY”2 3 and when did you last act or think outside of your box?

If you have not reflected on your “WHY” in a while, then let me shortly explain what consequences a lack of regular reflection and complaisant “in the box” thinking might have on your Organisation.

We all followed the recent development between Clicks and Unilever. Again, the opinions on the expose are plentiful, and, each thought has an element of truth in them.  The argument I want to focus on is my personal opinion, namely that the Leadership of Clicks and Unilever failed south Africa, and employees in both organisations, horribly.  I tried to establish the “WHY” behind the highly controversial ad campaign. A visit to Unilever’s website4 was sufficient for my head to drop down in disbelief. Unilever takes up a lot of their website space with a long promise of “purpose”, “change” and, of course “Ubuntu

Clicks do not fare any better when it comes to making empty promises on their website5. Beautifully hidden under the diamond of “corporate sustainability”, you can download a 16-pager PDF that tells you nothing of interest, unless you are a shareholder or potential investor. I had a good chuckle when I read their first value point, which states that “we (Clicks) are truly passionate about our customers”. I do not know when last I walked into a Clicks store and enjoyed the experience. Given the acceptance of the recent Unilever ad, I would expect that I am not the only one who does not feel the “passion” for us, their customers.

I was once told that “unless you live and breathe the values of your organisations, they make the most horrible wall decorations” and I proudly repeat this line of wisdom today! Unilever and Clicks failed miserably in their People Relations Strategies. Their value and purpose, or lack thereof, has not been communicated or lived in the Organisations. It might have been mentioned in the orientation and again at beautiful, expensive and all-expense-paid for executive meetings.  Still, the actual message has never been received or upheld by the rest of the team. An Organisation that prides itself in “being the best employer in the retail industry” indeed have done very little to ensure that management takes responsibility and accountability for their lack of leadership. Equally so in Unilever, who recites “Ubuntu”, as if it is a fashion piece, but could not develop a Marketing Team that could answer the self-reflecting “WHY” question and think “outside the box” with their unacceptable shampoo ad.

Clicks and Unilever lost their purpose, assuming they ever had one. Their employees, based on their general gloomy and unfriendly demeanour, do not live, believe or are aware of these supposed values and purpose. Clicks and Unilever seem to have fallen into the same“abuse of a system”1  trap all too many South African Organisations have fallen victim to, and, therefore, stands no chance in creating a genuinely passionate, change-driven and Ubuntu organisational culture. The only point, Clicks and Unilever might have achieved, is keeping the investors satisfied by disciplining “the guilty parties”, which, to my knowledge, have not been members of the management team – the actual guilty party. The Utopian sentiment comes to mind “for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed of them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them”.

Some have already argued that the message in the Shampoo ad has been misunderstood and that it might be a simple issue of “lost in translation”. Either way, a Leadership Team that is genuinely in tune with their own “WHY” and that of the Organisation’s, as well as operate “outside of the box” will not fall victims to the “inward mindset” trap.

Fortunately, Clicks and Unilever have the funds to invest in a rebranding of Tresemme Shampoo and Conditioner and eventually add them back onto the shelves of all the “hero” retailers that have banished Tresemme from their grounds. As employers of the majority of South Africans, SMMEs are often not so fortunate and I, therefore, strongly advise that our SMMEs have to do a regular self-reflection to remind themselves of their “WHY” and invest in effective leadership development.  I want to repeat that the only way to survive the imminent change is by going back to basics.  Every Organisation requires healthy People Relations Management Strategies to be able to ensure genuine adherence to a purpose-driven existence and the creation of an outward mindset Organisational culture.

In short, our Organisations, who are already mostly on their knees due to the struggles of a continuously declining economy, need to start looking inward to be able to start looking outward. Growth is possible. Survival is possible. Passion, rather than stress, is possible. It is, however, only possible if we are genuinely at peace in our hearts and want to accept and understand the changes facing us today and in the future. Clicks and Unilever are no example to follow!

  1. https://bit.ly/3675SkD
  2. https://bit.ly/3idbw7v
  3. https://bit.ly/2RYl3nV
  4. https://bit.ly/3kV19a9
  5. https://bit.ly/33ZSqN1