Representation in Organisational Leadership within a South African Context

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 1318

South Africa is infamous for its history of Apartheid. After the election of the National Parties (NP) to power in 1948, new laws divided Africans into four ethnic groups: whites, indigenous people, people of colour, and Asians (Baldwin-Ragaven et al., 1999). The white category was reserved for Caucasian (European) peoples, Native referred to persons of African descent, while the Asian category included people of Asian and Asian continent and mixed ethnic background and was classified by skin colour (Watson, 2007). Under Apartheid, residential areas, education, occupations, medical care, and public services were separated, non-whites in some areas were offered inferior services, the political representation of non-white candidates was banned until the 1970s, and blacks were stripped of South African citizenship (Beck, 2000). These categories are still used by South Africans for self-recognition, and organizations still use them for statistical and employment justice surveys, with the National Statistical Authority using them in the National Census of Statistics of South Africa (Statistics South Africa, 2012).

Affirmative action has been used in both the private and public sectors in an attempt to correct past injustices, at least in the area of employment. Affirmative action is often mentioned in the Wagner Act in 1935 (Bacchi, 1996) in the United States. The concept is in the modern context referring to diverse practices in which organizations take positive steps towards a more inclusive, fair, and equitable employment situation. It involves ensuring equal employment opportunities for all people with the same capacity to compete for a job (Rossouw, 1994), and it involves eliminating reverse discrimination in South Africa to give groups more opportunities previously denied them (Gamson & Modigliani, 1994). These ideals have crystallized in South African legislation such as the Employment Equity (EE) Act and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), which are regularly amended (Gov. Gaz., 2013; Werksmans, 2014).

The EE Act deals with the promotion of equality in the workplace, the elimination of unfair discrimination, and the creation of a representative workforce. The BBBEE Act, in turn, is designed to address the changing ethnic composition of South Africa’s workforce and the impact of corporate ownership by addressing the problem of women in the economy and creating more opportunities in rural communities.

Despite the official removal of Apartheid in 1994 and the introduction of affirmative action strategies in the public sector, no major changes appear to have taken place in the public sector, and they remain so to this day (Commission for Employment Equity, 2021; Scott et al., 1998; Vinnicombe & Singh, 2003). It is important to examine the reasons for the slow progress of the South African private sector in ensuring equal opportunities and representation in the workplace, including in management positions. Pilot studies and opinion polls suggest that research is needed on the experience and perception of publicly administered affirmative action (Scott et al., 1998; Vermeulen & Coetzee, 2006). Capital regulation in the private sector seems to continue to have limitations, lagging behind the objectives of equality and inclusion relative to the public sector.

In terms of theorizing organizational leadership, South Africa offers a unique opportunity to gain valuable insights into the social context that influences leadership social construction. Better representation of women in leadership positions is nowhere to be found in South Africa. Half of the South African labour force are women (Statistics South Africa, 2020) (Statistics South Africa, 2012b). Of top management roles in the South African private sector, however, only 24% of positions are held by women (Commission for Employment Equity, 2021). Predictably, race representation at the executive level is reflected in statistics on gender representation. The most recent Labour Force Report by Statistics South Africa is characterised by severe racial underrepresentation in key leadership roles (Statistics South Africa, 2020). Specifically, while White people make up 7% of the economically active population, management positions occupied by whites currently stand at 64% (Commission for Employment Equity, 2021).

The under-representation of women and people of colour in organizational management seems to be a cross-border phenomenon. South Africa has a unique historical heritage in terms of race relations and discrimination (Connolly & White, 2006). Moreover, various statistics emphasize the uniqueness of South Africa’s context and its history of a statistical minority of whites oppressed by a statistical majority of blacks, blacks, and Asians – a trend that seems to have been repeated in the 20 years since the fall of Apartheid (Solis & Galvin, 2011). South Africa, therefore, provides a dynamic context for analysing changes in equal opportunities and representation in the workplace. These changes have led to the decision to study leadership in the private sector of South Africa from a gender and race perspective.

In sum, South Africa is unique in having a unique history of racial inequality under Apartheid. During the apartheid regime, blacks experienced an unequal measure of citizenship and were denied basic rights (Smith et al., 2002). Now, the country is governed under a democratic constitution, and the nation has been liberated from Apartheid oppression. Although this is a positive development for South Africans, certain groups such as women and people of colour have not yet been able to achieve equity in all facets of life – specifically in this instance, that of representation among organisational leadership in South Africa’s private sector. This piece discusses the unequal participation in the South African workforce by women and people of colour, with the intention of highlighting the reasons for such an imbalance. Research can contribute to advancing a more just society, in the broadest sense, and therefore should be conducted in a corporate environment where equality is an essential value.

This brief overview of the literature deals with the history of inequality in South African employment, summarizes previous research on representation in private sector management and leadership, and explains why research into leadership in the South African private sector is of great importance. These avenues for research include enquiries into equality and diversity by means of Affirmative Action policies. This review has also demonstrated the importance of examining social phenomena within historical context, and urges future research on leadership in South Africa to situate studies within this context.


Bacchi, C. L. (1996). The Politics of Affirmative Action: Women, Equality and Category Politics. SAGE: London.

Baldwin-Ragaven, L., London, L., & De Gruchy, J. (1999). An Ambulance of the Wrong Colour: Health Professionals, Human Rights and Ethics in South Africa. Juta & Co: Cape Town.

Beck, R. B. (2000). The History of South Africa. Greenwood: Westport.

Commission for Employment Equity. (2021). 21st Commission of Employment Equity Annual Report.

Connolly, H., & White, A. (2006). The Different Experiences of the United Kingdom’s Ethnic and Religious Populations. Social Trends, 36, 1–8.

Government Gazette, Pub. L. No. Act 47, Government Gazette (2013)

Gamson, W. A., & Modigliani, A. (1994). The Changing Culture of Affirmative Action. In P. Burnstein (Ed.), Equal Employment Opportunity: Labor Market Discrimination and Public Policy. Aldine de Gruyter: New York.

Rossouw, D. (1994). Business Ethics: A Southern African Perspective. Southern Books: Halfway House.

Scott, C. R., Amos, T., & Scott, J. . (1998). Affirmative action as seen by business majors in the U.S. and South Africa. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 63(3), 28–38.

Smith, P. B., Peterson, M. F., & Schwartz, S. H. (2002). Cultural values, sources of guidance, and their relevance to managerial behavior: A 47-nation study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(2), 188–208.

Solis, H. L., & Galvin, J. M. (2011). Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity.

Statistics South Africa. (2012). Census 2011 Key Results.

Statistics South Africa. (2020). Quarterly Labour Force Survey – QLFS Q3.

Vermeulen, L. P., & Coetzee, M. (2006). Perceptions of the dimensions of the fairness of affirmative action: A pilot study. South African Journal of Business Management, 37(2), 53–64.

Vinnicombe, S., & Singh, V. (2003). Locks and keys to the boardroom. Women in Management Review, 18(6), 325–333.

Watson, W. (2007). Brick by Brick: An Informal guide to the History of South Africa. New Africa Books: Claremont.

Werksmans. (2014). Amendments to the BBBEE Act and the codes explained.

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