Man who changed the face of SA labour

Nic Wiehahn obituary: 13 years ago Chris Barron paid particular tribute to the late Prof Nic Wiehahn on 9 April 2006 in the Sunday Times after his unexpected death and it is fitting that we be reminded of the crucial role he played in 1979.  Not only did he call on the government of the day to make race discrimination in the labour market a criminal offence but he also ‘forced’ white managers to engage with black trade union leaders.  His recommendations were ‘unwittingly’ transformed into law almost immediately.  Had that not happened then it is doubted that this country would be where we are today.  Mediation workshops were conduct shortly after the statutory changes and I was fortunate to meet President Cyril Ramaphosa at the first workshop that was conducted in Johannesburg in 1981.

See also Labour Reforms in South Africa

Prof Nic Wiehahn

Chris Barron’s obituary in 2006

“His proposals brought such major changes in labour relations that economic historians refer to the pre- and post-Wiehahn periods

Nic Wiehahn, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 76, chaired one of the most revolutionary commissions of the apartheid era.

The recommendations of the 1979 Wiehahn commission of inquiry into South African labour laws led to the removal of job reservation and the rapid growth of black trade unions, which were now allowed to take part in collective bargaining. They also allowed for disputes between workers and bosses to be taken to an industrial court.

Friend and foe praised or condemned him for having collapsed the pillars of apartheid.

The government’s moves to implement his proposals exacerbated divisions within the National Party which led to the right-wing breakaway in 1983.

His proposals brought such major changes in labour relations that economic historians refer to the pre- and post-Wiehahn periods.

Within five years of his report, 28% of organised black labour was unionised.

He pointed out that at the time between 30% and 40% unionisation was considered good going in Western capitalist countries.

Nevertheless, he was frustrated by the pace at which his recommendations were implemented. Five years after he’d made them, influx control was still in force and there was still job reservation on the mines.

He said the mining industry was an “embarrassment” to South Africa and called on the government to make race discrimination in the labour market a criminal offence.

Born in Mafikeng on April 29, 1929, the son of a railway worker’ Wiehahn was brought up in Kimberley in a very conservative family, left school with a Std 7 pass and became a stoker on the railways.

He studied at night and passed his matric at the age of 21. He tried for a BSc degree but failed and did law instead. He obtained a BA, LLB and LLD, studied abroad, and was admitted to the Bar in South Africa and Lesotho before he became an academic and an acknowledged labour expert.

He was a member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council and was the Labour Minister Fanie Botha’s adviser when, in 1977, he told Botha there should be an inquiry into the labour laws.

At that time the government was coming under huge international pressure, not least because of the Sullivan Codes of Conduct for foreign companies in South Africa introduced the year before, and Botha had decided that the government couldn’t dodge the issue any longer.

The Prime Minister, John Vorster, agreed and Wiehahn was given the go-ahead, provided he agreed to chair the inquiry. Wiehahn’s first request, for a multiracial commission (the first in SA), must have given them some inkling of what was to come.

Vorster subsequently denounced the Wiehahn reforms.

Wiehahn believed that the most fundamental difference his proposals made were to deracialise the labour laws.

He was called a “revolutionary” and his family received death threats.

Wiehahn joked that after the commission he was blamed for everything including the drought. But his report propelled him to world fame. He became head of the School of Business Leadership at Unisa, was president of the Industrial Court, held numerous directorships, sat on many commissions, and travelled a lot, either alone or as a member of various delegations.

He was a member of a business delegation to the United Nations in 1985 that called for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela.
Asked how he did it all, he said, “I live by the Eno’s philosophy – be constantly effervescent.”

He collapsed while having dinner at a Johannesburg hotel on Wednesday. The cause of death was not immediately known.”