The growth of HR Standards in African countries by Marius Meyer


The growth of HR Standards in African countries

by Marius Meyer


Yesterday, I officially opened the 4th annual HR Standards Season leading up to the National Conference on 27-28 July 2016. I provided you with some background information, but today I revisit the journey and provide you with a progress report on the growth of HR standards on the African continent. But where did it all start?

In 2011 I was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP). My first priority was to establish what the needs of HR Managers were. I subsequently visited Human Resource (HR) Managers throughout all nine provinces of South Africa to determine what their problems, challenges and needs were. Three consistent themes emerged from this engagement:

  • HR professionals do not have credibility and are not respected in their organisations and they are seen as “inferior” or “less important” than other organisational functions;
  • HR is not seen as a “true profession” like engineering and accounting and HR will therefore continue to report to engineers and accounts as Heads of Production and Finance, or in certain cases directly to the CEO of a company.
  • In general, line managers are only concerned about production and service, often at the expense of people. For example, it is more important to get the gold out of the ground than getting the mine worker alive back on the ground.

After a full content analysis of these consultative sessions, I realised that the problem is much bigger than the dynamics of the HR-line management interface. In essence, two possible solutions presented itself, i.e. a fundamental shift towards the need for developing HR competence and HR standards. The reality is that we can continue to blame line management for our situation, or we can step up and improve and standardise our practice. If we as HR professionals are honest ourselves, we will also

admit that our house is not in order. While some of the top companies really have highly competent HR professionals, this is rather the exception than the norm. Therefore, SABPP developed a National HR Competency Model to address gaps in HR Competence, and we particularly focused on more strategic and business-friendly HR competencies as part of building an HR Competence House. Moreover, we have to admit that there is inconsistency in HR practice. Some companies will have the most brilliant talent management practices, while others have no talent management strategies in place. Even within an organisation, at head office or one site there may be excellent HR practices on the one hand, and very poor or non-existent HR practices at remote or other sites. Thus, the inconsistency in HR practice has been identified as a major stumbling block to HR credibility and quality. I therefore decided to embark on a project in South Africa to develop a set of national HR standards.

On 21 May 2013, a group of 108 HR Directors convened in Johannesburg to develop South Africa’s first set of National HR Standards. The HR Managers populated the following model with clear definitions, objectives and requirements for application. This was followed up with a formal launch on 21 and 22 August 2013, including further work to convert the overall HR standards to specific guidelines for application, referred to as HR Application Standards. The response to this event was such a success that it was attended by a total of 468 HR Managers from all nine provinces in South Africa, as well as four other countries, i.e. Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. In essence, this means that the second round of HR standards development, i.e. the development of the HR application standards were co-developed by HR Managers from five African countries.

Since then, the SABPP office has been overwhelmed by the response from the international community. We were regularly approached by individuals and organisations from all over the world to share the South African HR standards development success story with our international counterparts.


While we appreciated the international interest, our first objective was and remains to make a success of the HR standards in South Africa as our main area of operation. That was also our approach when being invited to other African countries. In fact, we do not have a purposeful strategy to do any proactive marketing in other countries. Thus, all work we have done in other African countries started from invitations only. In most cases, these invitations came from professional bodies in our neighbouring countries, in particularly, the Institute of People Management of Zimbabwe, the Institute of People Management of Namibia, the Institute of People Management of Swaziland, the Institute of Human Resource Management in Botswana and the Zambian Institute of HR Management. In addition to these formal invitations, individuals in some of these and other countries have expressed their support for the HR Standards Project. When presenting the HR standards in these African countries, we explicitly made it clear that our goal was not to export the South African standards to other countries. In fact, in all these cases we offered our support and suggested two options:

1. Develop your own unique country HR Standards from scratch;

2. Review the South African standard and adapt it where necessary.

For instance, we have found that labour legislation differs between countries, and that the South African employment equity requirements that feature in the HR standards were two of the areas that are not relevant to other countries. While discussing this with HR Managers in Zimbabwe, they indicated that the principle of equality which underpins employment equity systems was very much relevant to Zimbabwe. Therefore, while context may differ, more similarities were found, for example, the employment equity legislation of Namibia and South Africa are very similar. In fact, the South African legislators studied the Namibian legislation during their fact finding process. In more recent times, following the trend from Middle Eastern countries, in Zimbabwe and Namibia strong indigenisation regimes have emerged, but once again, the underlying requirements of skills development, and skills transfer in particular are of utmost importance to ensure the sustainability and success of this policy and its implications.

In reality, from a pure HR perspective, apart from context, culture and legislation, very few country differences were found. Whether you are in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Lesotho or Swaziland, you need good HR practices. As Lomkhosi Magagula of the Royal Swaziland Corporation asserts: “The development of HR Standards provides a good basis for ensuring a practitioner who will understand ”the business of the business”. It will be crucial to be adaptive to the changing business environment.

The talent management standard is equally relevant in any of these countries, while its contextual application may somewhat differ, e.g. some of these countries may to a certain extent be more dependent on expatriate skills transfer than others. Also, getting the standards embedded may be key in addressing the influx of major international stakeholders operating in Africa such as the French, Chinese, Americans and Indians to prevent the further exploitation of labour in African countries, and ensure that good HR practice becomes the norm and does not remain the exception. Without a significant investment in human capital and skills development in particular, African countries will not be able to sustain its current high levels of economic growth. Sound HR practice is therefore key in building high performing African companies in both the private and public sector.

It is also interesting to note that many African countries have similar challenges. However, there is a clear commitment on the part of HR professionals to deal proactively with these challenges. For instance, when the Ebola virus broke out, many African countries took proactive action in preventing the spread of the virus. Several HR Managers in Zimbabwe had proactive awareness campaigns about the virus. Likewise, South Africa has the most HIV/AIDS cases in the world, yet it also has one of the

most progressive HIV/AIDS campaigns in the world. In addition, many African countries continue to struggle with high unemployment rates, such as South Africa (26%) and Namibia (28%). Fortunately, though, areas of strength have also emerged in African countries. Botswana has one of the lowest levels of corruption on the continent, while Zimbabwe has the best schooling system and South Africa the best universities. HR Managers in African countries should be in touch with their socio-economic realities to find solutions for dealing with the challenges impacting on HR practice, such as low skills levels and talent gaps.



Building on the development of the HR Standards in South Africa and its spread in several African countries, we decided to consolidate all current projects in one table. This will make it easy to review the current uptake and to forecast growth in the future. This information could also be used to build cross-border relationships and to support different country projects with the aim of ensuring its success and sustainability. A summary of the current interest and progress in HR Standards in Africa is as follows:


While the above countries are certainly the HR standards leaders in Africa in terms of making tangible progress in launching and or championing HR standards, several other countries have expressed interest in the HR standards, such as Kenya, Angola and Ghana, but no further progress has been made.

Furthermore, during the Africities 2015 conference in Sandton, South Africa, significant interest was expressed among the mayors and local government leaders from across the African continent to learn and leverage from the South African HR standards.   Moreover, from across the world in leading Western countries, such as the USA, UK, Australia and Canada, good feedback has been received about the world leadership in HR standards on the African continent.  In addition, positive comments were also received from the East, in particular Malaysia and Sri Lanka, as well as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the Middle East.  It is therefore evident that the pursuit of HR standards has become a global trend spearheaded by the International Standards Organization.  While progress has been slow in the West and the East, it is clear that African countries are continuing rolling out HR standards at a rapid pace, and this trend is likely to continue as more African countries are coming on board.  It is also important to mention that Zambia is the first country in the world in which HR has become a full statutory profession, and significant progress has been made by Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe to follow in their footsteps.



Three questions arise:

  1. Why are HR standards adoption and growth faster and more effective in certain African countries than others?
  2. What are the key factors in ensuring HR standards uptake in African countries?
  3. How can we ensure the growth and sustainability of HR standards in African countries?

The answer to the above questions is one word: Leadership.  In countries with strong HR professional bodies such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia it was easy to establish and grow HR standards.  In other countries, certain individuals with leadership abilities played a key role to create awareness and providing leadership in building momentum in growth, such as Gerard Mofolo in Lesotho.  Gerard got himself trained as an auditor by SABPP, and he used this knowledge to encourage HR Managers in Lesotho to join the HR Standards journey.  In fact, he was so successful in these efforts that he has now been used as an auditor in South Africa.



Despite the early successes of HR Standards in certain African countries, it is clear that more awareness and capacity-building is needed to establish and grow HR standards in Africa.  Certain countries will continue to be leaders as the early adopters, others will catch up, and others will stay behind.  Be that as it may, the opportunity for all African countries to come to the party is open. The following guidelines may be useful to kick-start the process:

  • Invite SABPP to orientate African HR professional bodies about HR standards;
  • Conduct a full-day HR standards workshop to train HR Managers in HR standards;
  • Adapt or adopt the current HR standards to your country;
  • Start creating success stories of companies applying the HR standards in your country;
  • Train auditors on HR standards;
  • Conduct audits against the HR standards in your country;
  • Set standards for universities and learning providers to train students in HR standards;
  • Encourage post graduate studies and other research projects on HR standards;
  • Celebrate successes of companies successfully audited and build capacity in companies requiring improvements to meet HR standards;
  • Issue awards to the first companies successfully audited, and write up their case studies;
  • Keep a database of companies audited and calculate and share national averages on the performance of companies against the HR standards.

In the light of the above progress report, it is clear that African countries have assumed world leadership in implementing HR standards in their countries.  While these countries are currently drawing on the South African HR standards, it is possible that different sets of standards or hybrid models may emerge or evolve when different African countries are making progress and/or reaching a level of maturity regarding the development and application of national or regional HR standards.  The HR standards initiative represents a great opportunity for African countries to build on their world leadership as champions of HR standards.  It also provides opportunities for cross-border sharing, capacity-building and research – thereby ensuring that HR standards become well embedded in African countries.  Who knows, if we get it right, we may start to transfer this knowledge to Europe, Middle-East, Asia and the Americas to provide a unique African contribution to the HR profession at a global level.


Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) in South Africa. He facilitated HR standards processes in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia.  For more information, contact him on or visit the SABPP website on or follow SABPP on twitter @SABPP1. 



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