Does South Africa deserve the ‘S’ in BRICS?

A report from the 10th IBA Employment and Discrimination Law Conference

The 10th IBA Employment and Discrimination Law Conference took place last week in Cape Town, South Africa. The conference was presented by the IBA Employment and Industrial Relations Law Committee and the IBA Discrimination and Equality Law Committee and was supported by the IBA African Regional Forum. An excellent turnout of senior in-house representatives, jurists and employment law attorneys from around the globe attended the conference, which was of a very high quality, both in terms of content and organisation

The theme for the conference was Modernising Labour Law in the 21st Century: Building Successful Workplaces in a Changing Employment Environment.  Working sessions included: “The role of trade unions in a globalised world”, “Guidance on international outsourcing laws and the macroeconomics involved”, “The role of multinational enterprises in managing foreign workforces, with specific reference to the mining/oil and gas industries”, and “Doing business in Africa – the challenges, common practices, risks and potential rewards of being a multinational enterprise operating in Africa”.

Participants were anxious to know if Africa in general and South Africa in particular, is indeed the forgotten continent, where exponential growth and a booming economy will create legal opportunities in the years to come. Based on current developments in the region, where international firms enter the African market by trying to merge with partner firms in South Africa, that certainly seems to be the assumption. South Africa shows a steady, albeit not spectacular economic growth rate and – in my employment lawyer opinion- the established South African firms are well developed, have good employment law practices and are very comfortable advising international clients. They are a step ahead of the rest of Africa

Would the session on Doing Business in Africa shed any light on this? Even though it was introduced with a large number of facts and data, the general feeling remains that the statistics such as growth rate of the economy or low unemployment rates do not tell the whole story. Many participants were more concerned about, for example, the 2013 Corruption Perception Index. Looking at these numbers, Africa still has a long way to go, with many countries at the bottom of the table.

However, the goal of this year’s conference was to support international cooperation and communication between lawyers, human resources professionals, managers and in-house counsels in Africa and the rest of the world and to act as a “platform” for the exchange of legal experience and know-how at the international level. With topics such as “Hiring, retaining and protecting LGBT talent”, with former Dutch MP and current Human Rights Watch advocacy director Boris Dittrich, and “a judges’ forum – anti-discrimination laws: are they working? lessons from the bench”, this goal has certainly been achieved. These events, where opinions and experiences were shared, will certainly increase cooperation so that the ‘S’ in BRICS (acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) can begin its promising rise.

By Stephan Swinkels, executive director and member of the board of L&E Global