In 1975 I was one of the first participants in what was called the HDPM (Higher Diploma in Personnel Management) programme at the Wits Business School. Today it is more illustriously called the PDM (Postgraduate Diploma in Management).
The Wits Business School already had an established reputation for its MBA programme and had obviously decided to offer a year’s full-time course, not as intense, not as demanding, but nevertheless offering a range of general management subjects with the emphasis being Personnel management. In those days the classes were very much and all-male all-white affair. If in a class of 40 there were three females – that was a lot! Our class of 40 was 50-50 male/female. It was run by Prof. O’Meara, the director of the school was Prof Simon Biesheuvel and the lecturers I can remember were Messrs Cawood, MacGregor, Limerick, Douws-Dekker, Beggs and Andrews. There were many more, all drawn from the MBA class, expecting, I think, the same standards of industrious study and late night syndicate work.
They hadn’t reckoned on the collective might of 20 females who complained about “the pressure of work”, citing family commitments, domestic requirements, child raising responsibilities and the like! In no time, confronted with much wailing and many tissues, they reduced the workload, softened their lecturing styles, and became unbelievably accommodating of assignments handed in way after the due date. I have a vivid recollection of Prof Biesheuvel arguing the case for differential employment practices in respect of females, pointing out that at some stage “they will fall pregnant” only to be greeted, to his utter astonishment, with a cacophony of hissing. I won’t go down the road of relating Prof Andy Andrew’s ‘elbow test’ story.
Midyear saw us being sent on work experience, a “practical assignment in industry”. I found myself working at the Anglo owned Vaal Reefs Gold Mine in Klerksdorp. I was stationed in the single quarters with many young graduates in the engineering and mining disciplines. Once it was established that I was a Personnel trainee I became the subject of much derision. In those days the Personnel department’s were the dumping ground for mining staff who had either been injured, incapacitated or psychologically disturbed by their mining experience. I went underground just about every day, it was exhausting, and all I was doing was observing. I spent time in the mine compounds, bastions of management control – later to become fortresses of union control. I tried the acclimatisation chamber, stepping up and down for four hours with just my underpants on in a high-humidity high-temperature simulated environment with someone beating a drum as in the Ben Hur movie rowing scene. I was astonished at the determination of the newly recruited black mineworkers to succeed in this test. It was an unforgettable experience, my main learning point however was that Personnel Management was the poor cousin of the general management disciplines.
Upon returning to the Wits Business School we were asked to report back on our ‘practical assignments’. Quite naturally I reported that the subject of our year’s work – Personnel Management – was the wrong choice. It was held in this universal disregard, even contempt, by fellow managers. Prof. O’Meara was livid, he stormed out of my presentation threatening ‘5% at most’.
I was suddenly faced with the prospect of failing the entire course.
Fortunately, some weeks later we had a public presentation by Dr. Denis Etheridge – Chairman of the Gold Division at Anglo on opportunities in the mining industry. One of my colleagues questioned the regard held in the industry for those involved in Personnel management. Dr. Etheridge replied “We have a lot of work to do in that regard, previously Personnel has been a dumping ground for failed managers, relegated to looking after compounds, housing allocation and recruitment. But the environment is changing, professional managers particularly with industrial relations expertise are going to become the requirement for the future.”
It was after that lecture that I heard the word ‘exonerated’ for the first time.
The following year I joined Anglo’s Industrial Relations department under Sam Van Coller and Bobby Godsell. I so enjoyed the learning curve and the opportunities given to me by these really ‘cool’ managers. Four years later I established my own industrial relations consulting company. It was the time of the Wiehahn Commission, unregistered black unions, recognition agreements, wage negotiations and a wave of industrial action. Personnel managers and industrial relations consultants were suddenly taken seriously and were present in most Board meetings.
My HDPM grounding had served me well!