Violence and Social Change: Some effects on the workplace and some possible solutions.

Violence and Social Change: Some effects on the workplace and some possible solutions.

Simpson, G. (1991). Violence and Social Change: Some effects on the workplace and some possible solutions. Paper presented to the National EAP Committee of the Institute for Personnel Management Conference, The Role of the EAP in Managing Trauma, Johannesburg, August.


Graeme Simpson

Paper presented to the National EAP Committee of the Institute for Personnel Management Conference, The Role of the EAP in Managing Trauma, Johannesburg, August 1991.

Graeme Simpson is a founder and former Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


Amongst other things, this paper attempts to deal with the question of what business and Human Resource practitioners can do in regard to the rather complex problem of workplace violence. Inasmuch as this seminar is concerned with the broader topic of "social transformation", it is already obvious that the effects of traumatic experiences beyond the workplace may well express themselves within the working environment. For this reason, in considering the aspects of violence which workplace-based practitioners will encounter, it makes no sense, especially in the current South African context, to deal with the workplace as if it were detached from the wider community or from the domestic arena.

In dealing with the specific issue of violence, it would therefore be shortsighted to attempt to isolate such violence as occurs within the workplace from the "culture of violence" which pervades our wider society and its politics. The history of the 1980s has demonstrated that much beyond any doubt. The process of political repression under apartheid had the almost inevitable consequence of the politicisation of the trade union movement, which became a surrogate voice for black working class South Africans who were denied any other legitimate outlet for their political aspirations. The equally inevitable result was the transportation of both the culture and the style of politics from the community to the working environment – at a time when struggles around education, civic issues and national political questions were increasingly being expressed through resort to violence.

Before we can begin to address the problem of violence in the workplace, we therefore need to understand the magnitude of the problem in its wider context.

South Africa's Culture of Violence

Apartheid has bequeathed to South African society deep-rooted and pervasive division – based on a series of hostile, racially-based stereotypes within largely segregated, defensive, yet volatile communities. In this context, the country's political culture becomes inextricably interwoven with the themes of violence and political intolerance. On one hand, the state demonstrated its legitimation of violence as a means of maintaining political power, whilst on the other, resistance movements legitimised violence as an appropriate means of attaining change. In short, violence became a socially sanctioned mechanism for resolving conflict and for attaining change.

In a society as thoroughly politicised as South Africa, this style of politics inevitably "spills" over into other dimensions of society as people seek to resolve their social, economic and domestic problems and disputes. It is as a result of the consequent excessive social, political, criminal and domestic violence in South African society, that it has become possible to talk of a "culture of violence". This is not a term that should be used lightly, yet it has been bandied about by analysts of the South African context without much content being invested in it.

But February 2, 1990, was supposed to have changed all this. The speech by the State President in opening parliament promised an era of peace and raised the prospect of a negotiated settlement in the not-too-distant future. Yet in many respects, this merely flattered to deceive as the legacy of political repression, a contracting economy and job market, inadequate educational opportunities and racial and ethnic division played themselves out through the decades-old antagonisms within the society. These divisions were merely exacerbated by the political contest heralded by intense competition for seats at some future negotiating table.

In lieu of the promised peace, the prospect of transition brought with it the deep-rooted fear and uncertainty which frequently accompanies dramatic social change. Four decades of divide and rule ideology suddenly had to be confronted and such an entrenched political culture does not easily disappear. For many South Africans, the legalisation of the previously banned and criminalised political movements merely replaced the "external enemy" – characterised as such through government's "total onslaught" ideology and through the notion of a "border war" – with a new "enemy within". In the symbolic return of the exiles, the previously externalised enemy came home – exacerbating the fears and the insecurities, particularly of white South Africans. This "enemy within" syndrome resulted in the "introversion" of South African politics as the society turned in on itself – like a baboon disembowelling itself in an attempt to rid itself of some incomprehensible and intense pain within.

Although often political at origin, much of the consequent frustration and fear has been displaced into arenas apparently removed from the political sphere. The result has been a dramatic escalation of violence in almost all dimensions of the society – within the community, the workplace and the home. Not only has this been a quantitative increase in levels of violence, but has seen a qualitative shift in the forms and brutality of this conflict as well.

The history of politicised policing under apartheid has also played its part here. In the absence of a law enforcement agency which was credible and trusted in the eyes of the policed community (black South Africans have regarded the SAP as an oppressor rather than as a protector), the inevitable consequence is the propensity to "legal self-help". Instead of going to the police, aggrieved parties prefer to take the law into their own hands with the consequent spiral of violent revenge and retribution. In this process, even violence which was politically motivated at origin, becomes more and more removed from its original motivation – until the line between political, criminal and domestic violence becomes a very thin one indeed.

In the process, it is often the structurally weaker members of the society who are predisposed to suffer most. Just as the aggression becomes displaced, so are the victims of this aggression alternatively located. In the wake of February 1990, it is women, children and the elderly who have become some of the most prevalent victims of violence. Consider the following:

  • It has been estimated that taking non-reported rapes into account, approximately 300 000 women are raped each year in South Africa. In 1990, the Minister of Police stated that the rape of young girls was up by 23% over the 1989 figure.

  • Serious assault of children under 14 years old was reported to have increased by 55% in 1990 when compared with the figure for 1989.

  • Violent crime against the elderly was up in some areas by as much as 44,5% as compared with the previous year.

  • 1990 also witnessed a dramatic increase in violent attacks against black domestic workers within white homes.

These figures are no more than indicators. The point here is that in the context of this culture of violence, it would be extremely shortsighted to hope or expect the workplace to remain unaffected. The relationship between the community and the factory is a reciprocal one. Just as tensions in the home may affect people at work, so do the stresses and strains of communities in transition affect people in their working environment. It is precisely because this relationship is reciprocal that business and human resource practitioners have the potential, if they approach the problem appropriately, to address and influence the traumatic experience of violence beyond the narrow confines of the factory perimeter fences.

Some Potential Pitfalls in Dealing with the Problem

The reciprocal relationship between the workplace and the township impacts directly on how we deal with the problem of violence and the trauma this generates. The greatest temptation is to merely deal with such violence or trauma as it presents itself in the workplace. In this way, concerned business people may often attempt to closet the workplace and to deal only with the problem there – ministering to and counselling our "own little group of workers". In so doing, we are potentially denying or ignoring both the wider experience of these workers, as well as their social rather than individual needs within the communities from which they are drawn. There are some very dangerous pitfalls if we allow ourselves to do this:

  • The first problem which will confront us is the allegation that such activities are a substitute for a non-existent, state-sponsored and community-based social welfare system to catch those who are marginalised within the wider community. The benefactors are perceived to be employed workers at the expense of the unemployed township residents.

  • The second potential danger implicit in this approach is that attempts to deal with the workers' experiences of violence may be regarded as being motivated by "management's profit motive" or a mere concern with productivity. The suspicions of workers in this context must be acknowledged and taken seriously. The issue of community violence must be treated as a human and political dilemma of huge proportions … it is not simply a productivity problem! In this context, it would do well to guard against the tone of the message conveyed by the following quotation from Frema Engel is the EAP Digest of July/August 1987:

Business and public service organisations cannot afford to ignore the effects of trauma, violence, and crime on their employees. The costs are too great. Morale, attendance, sick leave costs, personnel turnover, management-employee relationships, productivity, service delivery, profits – all are affected. (my emphasis)

In the South African context, I suspect that language such as this would be greeted with some scepticism by workers who may well read off it a limited concern with the needs of the working class community. This community concern will, in all likelihood, be perceived as secondary to the over-riding concern to get people back to work and productive again.

  • The third potential pitfall of this approach is that is would be viewed as largely reactive rather than proactive, as the source of the problem is usually beyond the factory gates – rather than merely within the working environment.

  • Finally, this approach contains within it the real danger of individualising social needs and dealing with the individual problems instead of the collective experience of violence.

Violence – An Individual and Collective Experience

To warn against treating the individual problem in lieu of taking on the social or collective experience, is not to deny that the stress and trauma resulting from exposure to violence affect different individuals differently. But stress and trauma resulting from high levels of social and political violence are both individual and social constructs. To illustrate this we have only to look at some simple examples of how different individuals are differentially affected by the social dislocation that accompanies violence and possible death, as well as how they are differentially predisposed to engaging in violent acts themselves.

  • Familial responsibility, especially for example in the case of a sole breadwinner, may play a central role in mediating the way in which violence is experienced – both in terms of the individual's propensity to engage in violence as well as in the effect of death or disablement resulting from victimisation.

  • These issues may all affect migrant workers differentially because of the added responsibility of a distant family reliant on the repatriation of migrant earnings. Especially migrant hostel dwellers, who are often situated at the heart of township conflict, experience the added insecurity of the perceived threat to their sources of accommodation and their very urban existence, in the context of recent township conflict.

  • For unemployed and generally marginalised black youths who are under-educated and for whom there is no comprehensive social welfare net, the stakes are much lower and the propensity to violence – whether political or criminal – potentially much greater.

  • Finally, gender-based expectations also play a central role in determining the ways in which individuals engage with the issues and experiences of social and political violence.

These factors have been selected fairly randomly from the range which will impact on the relationship between individual action and collective experience in respect of violence. The point is, that to truly deal with this problem, we must of necessity understand it as being as much a social as an individual experience. This demands that in attempting to "manage" or treat the consequent trauma, we need to invest energy in the search for collective solutions and not restrict our approach to one which deals only with individuals, or which is strictly limited to a relatively small group of employees within our own workplace environment.

What Business can Do?

The responsibility on business organisations and human resource practitioners therefore lies at two distinct levels, through which we can both address the problems of violence at root, and through which we can assist in developing the mechanisms for coping with the resultant trauma. We must engage:

  • at the level of the community or in respect of the collective experience of violence; and

  • at the level of employees within our own enterprise, that is, individual or small group intervention.

Some of the issues which can be taken up in engaging at both these levels will now be outlined. This should not be taken as either complete or as prescriptive, but merely as a starting point to stimulate the development of creative mechanisms for redressing the situation on the part of the business community, human resource practitioners, Employee Assistance Programmes, etc.

In Respect of the Community at Large (at the Collective Level)
Institutionalisation of conflict

There are invaluable lessons that can be learned from the negotiated peace which has proved possible in the context of competing interests at the shop-floor level. In the systems of collective bargaining and shop-floor negotiation, many lessons can be learned in alternative dispute resolution. These methods can be appropriately used to resolve political disputes when they do spill over into the working environment and appropriate training may assist employees in applying these skills beyond the shop-floor as well. However, we would do well to heed the warning issued by Johan Liebenberg, the former industrial relations adviser to the Chamber of Mines:

Given these background environmental causes [within the politics at community and national level], it is clear that we cannot solve the problem of violence solely through industrial relations. Collective bargaining may provide insights into the means or the methods for tackling these problems, but we cannot expect our industrial relations structures to be the means for the elimination of these wider problems. We would be overworking collective bargaining.

To attempt to "institutionalise conflict" in the South African context we must heed the lessons of the British example (from whence is drawn our industrial relations framework). Authors such as Pelling and Geary have noted that the 100 years of British labour history to 1985, which witnessed only one death of a worker in industrial disputes, was as much the result of the extension of political rights to workers as it was attributable to successful collective bargaining. It is, therefore, to "constitutionalisation of the working class" in South Africa that the business community must look. Basically this means that the business community has to play an active role in fostering the development of a thorough-going democracy in which its employees have vested stakes in a normative political process. It is important that employees within any particular enterprise experience some corporate concern with this dimension of their lives. I am by no means the first or the most qualified to suggest this. Karl Hofmeyer of the School of Business Leadership at UNISA stated it quite directly:

In formulating its advancement plans, a company should give serious attention to the "political" dimension which pervades every aspect of our society: to consider how it can influence the success of the plan and to what extent the company is prepared to try to influence political change.

The business community is a very reluctant entrant into the political realm. Yet it is argued here that it has a vital role to play and an objective interest – as witnessed by concerned business leaders' involvement in the recent tripartite peace initiatives.

An active contribution to the search for a rapid political settlement

Perhaps most importantly in the climate of political uncertainty which inevitably accompanies a process of dramatic transition, business has a vital role in pressurising all political actors to come as rapidly as possible to the negotiating table. This must be done without any concern to advance the particular interests of any one of the contesting parties.

Encouraging the development of civic structures

In the long term, one guarantee that community violence does not get out of control is through the development of representative local-level organisation (largely smashed in the era of repression under apartheid) with a respected locally-based leadership. It is only such leadership that can assert a disciplined approach to politics and to the resolution of disputes in times of crisis or high tension. However, in the role it plays at this level, business must ensure to safeguard its neutrality through appropriate consultation.

Reinvigorated corporate social responsibility programmes

This must involve investment in specific violence-related fields such as victim aid and education.

In Respect of Workers Within their Workforce (at the Individual Level)
Negotiated codes of conduct

The likelihood of violence in the workplace is greatly enhanced in times of industrial conflict such as strikes, wage disputes, etc. To deal with such high tension situations, management representatives need to engage in negotiations with worker representatives to establish mutually acceptable codes of conduct in advance of these situations occurring. An excellent example of this is the NUM/Anglo code of conduct designed to control violence in the mining sector.

Developing negotiating skills and encouragement of alternative forms of dispute resolution

One principal reason why violence in the workplace has not reached the proportions it has in the community is because conflict resolution in the labour sphere has been developed, sophisticated and to some extent institutionalised. This is distinct from the civic and political domain where negotiation politics is new and where local-level structures are often not strong enough to enforce accords. Explicit training in these skills could have lasting benefit not only for the workplace environment, but within the communities as well.

Sensitivity to the extra-workplace experience can be demonstrated in workplace flexibility

For example, flexibility around working times, shift arrangements and different pay systems to take into account the dangers individuals face when living in war zones through which they have to travel to go to work.

Financial support for victims and potential victims

This may take the form of insurance schemes, assistance with funeral expenses, etc. Such schemes for financial aid are a vital dimension in helping to reduce the trauma of exposure to violence and to mitigate its long-term effects.

Victim aid programmes

Aid of this nature may take numerous forms. Some ideas and examples are listed below:

  • Psychological Counselling – Little needs to be said in respect of this aspect, the importance of which has already been acknowledged by many human resource practitioners. But this should not stop at the factory gates; home visits, etc. are essential. Also businesses need to invest in new and creative counselling methods appropriate to the experience and world view of their employee base. This demands more investigation of appropriate collective counselling methods and investment in the search for alternative treatment modalities appropriate to servicing our employees and not merely our businesses – otherwise the danger is one of individualising the problems which are social and political at root.

  • Legal Aid and Support – Especially in the context of a low level of confidence in existing policing institutions and the consequent prevalent resort to informal justice and retribution, business institutions have a key role to play in respect of the legal needs of their employees. A vital service can be offered here in providing back-up, following up grievances and fostering the process of judicial rather than informal retribution. Of course, this has to be done very carefully. If appropriately carried out, this gives employees the clear message that the company is sympathetic about their plight and their desire for retribution and justice. To the law enforcement agencies, the message is clear as well – they are accountable and lack of progress in pursuing reported cases is only acceptable if they have exhausted their resources.

  • Provision of Temporary Alternative Accommodation – Temporary accommodation for workers who have lost homes or who are unable to return home is another useful aid.

  • Memorial Services – The holding of memorial services at the workplace for employees who have been killed provides an opportunity for workplace friends to mourn their loss. It again intimates that the company respects and is genuinely concerned with their employees beyond their working lives.


If business is to respond appropriately to the violence its employees face, it must educate itself about the nature of the violence and the situational circumstances that surround it. This should be done not only through resort to the commercial media, but also through joint discussions with staff about social issues in the townships. Another useful mechanism is the establishment of joint monitoring teams with trade unions. Such teams also help foster a relationship of trust and common purpose with employee organisations. Visits to townships are another means of obtaining information about the living experience of employees. The possibilities in this respect are virtually limitless and should include the commissioned services of expert groups to facilitate both worker and employer education programmes in relation to the specific issue of violence. Experiential learning through joint employee/employer workshops, and the sharing of ideas and experiences, can be both educational and therapeutic at the same time. Groups such as the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation are available to make and facilitate interventions of this nature where companies do not have the resident expertise in this area.


In conclusion, the issue of violence in the workplace and the experience of trauma resulting from high levels of community violence, are fundamentally inseparable. The challenge in dealing with the problem touches directly on the role of the business community beyond the confines of the shop-floor. Ultimately, if business and human resource practitioners are to play a role to their full potential, then they need to go some way to transforming themselves from being merely support agencies to being agencies for change. Unless you are perceived this way, you cannot overcome the huge gap between yourselves and your workers who experience the trauma of violence first-hand.

Furthermore, we need to be educating ourselves about the roots and experiences of violence through the eyes of those employees who are directly affected. This inevitably demands some reorientation in our methodology and our approach. For many township residents, violence is a way of life. It is a form of continuous stress which does not revolve around one incident and which affects whole communities of people. The experience is collective and continuous and begs many questions of the individualistic orientation of many applications of post traumatic stress disorder syndrome in dealing with the problems at a psychological level.

Finally, the specific experiences of township-based employees demand that thorough-going consultation with workers on the provision of services is indispensable. Worker representatives through the trade union movement are an essential part of this process. More integrated work with employee representatives is essential to reorienting the services that can be provided in the new South Africa.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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