How to manage forced, unplanned change (part 1)

Understand the mechanisms may save you pain from unintended consequences.

“Burn to be heard”. This chilling statement echoes daily across South Africa, at times referred to as the ‘strike capital of the world’. The mobilization often leads to organizations having to concede to unplanned, forced changes. Johns (2006, p.386) defined context as those “situational opportunities and constraints that affect the occurrence and meaning of organisational behavior. In the field of organisational change, we know much about how to manage it (Stouten, Rousseau and de Cremer, 2018), what people experience during change and how to build resilience to cope with all the changes (Eckstein, 2014).

However, more understanding on how some of the unexpected, unplanned changes are forced upon organisations from a macro context will help us to learn from and better navigate the fluidity of change. We therefore need to understand the mechanisms of change, Mechanisms are useful ‘toolkits’ for seeing beyond the surface level description of a particular phenomenon and for theorising new connections in the phenomenon of interest (Weber, 2006).

In this three part series, we will explore mechanisms in and around organisations that could lead to forced, unplanned change. First, we compare the 2016 #Outsourcingmustfall (#OMF) mobilisation with the 2009 Marikana1 event, illustrating key lessons organisations should have learnt. Thereafter, in Part Two, we explore identity enabled power mechanisms in and around organisations. The final part in this series will discuss the role of social mobilisation in unplanned change and tactics that can force change on organisations.

The Marikana-#OMF tactics

During 2009, a socio-political and economic context caught the South African mining sector by surprise, and worker mobilization led to the unnecessary loss of lives. In 2015/16, social mobilization in higher education had a knock on effect fast tracking the elimination of outsourcing practices in this sector, while leading to unplanned consequences for a number of HE institutions.

Social mobilization is not sectorial

I have worked with a multitude of organisations across various sectors and a consistent challenge for organisational change is a ‘silo-mentality’. Although the media focused on the campuses, the #OMF campaign was never limited to the higher education sector. It touched a broad spectrum of workers deemed the ‘missing middle’ in South Africa, thus expanding beyond one sector. When the Marikana incident happened, it was mostly a ‘mining focused’ learning, and other sectors did not pay particular attention to what could be learnt. Social mobilization addresses broader social issues, often touching the external context of organisations but impacting the workplace.

The ‘missing middle’ does not feel heard

The end of the apartheid regime in South Africa was supposed to coincide with a process of democratisation and the redistribution of wealth, but the hopes of ordinary people have been disappointed by actual developments. The community protests for basic services since the 2000s (Steyn, 2015), the Marikana massacre of August 2012 (Farlam, 2012), and the student and workers movement in 2015/16, have eroded the legitimacy of the rainbow nation narrative.

The socio-political context was also infused with a socio-economic reality. In 2009 the world experienced a global recession. South Africa experienced this as a financial crisis and persisted in maintaining a blended economy characterized by elements of capitalism limited by state ownership and regulation. Following the economic crisis, the economy in South Africa continued to take pressure, which translated into financial constraints, an increase in unemployment and a general increase in poverty levels.

However, the political transformation led to an increase in black economic empowerment. The transformation impacted a small elite group and led to an increase in the middle class, but the poverty levels of the masses of non-white citizens remained high. Fast forward to 2015 and the new generation of students, who had experienced two decades of democracy but not the ANC struggle days, felt frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of progress in terms of equality and empowerment. These masses were feeling ‘unheard’ and under-represented and this gave rise to leftist movements with a strong socialist perspective to represent the voice of the struggling masses. The blended economy contributed to the frustration experienced in the HE sector due to the unaffordability of higher education (Jansen, 2017).

The Marikana incident reported a long term suppression of workers’ voices by leadership. The outsourced workers of the #OMF movement similarly had no voice in the organization as they were not ‘employees’ but rather a commodity in a service level agreement. The reality was that these workers spent 100% of their time at the client site and even reported in to supervisors employed by the higher education institution. Service level agreements, being a procurement responsibility, do not consider ‘people management practices’, although the legislation is clear that the organization sourcing in is co-responsible for people matters.

General threat to the status quo

The mobilization aims to wear down the resilience within organisational structures. When organisational leadership takes a position of superiority to assert themselves and their governance (through policies and influencers), the mobilization will intensify. Leaders must acknowledge that the status quo has been disrupted and this calls for creative and collaborative tactics to deal with the new situation. Leaders must learn to be comfortable with discomfort.

Organisation within the mobilization

Organisations have strategies while social movements work from tactics. Tactical responsiveness is not always a strength for large organisations. Organisations have layers of structures and authority levels to work through, while the organization of mobilisations is more flexible. Leaders need to know who they are engaging with while activists do not always have one specific, identifiable group of leaders. During Marikana, social activists helped organize independent worker committees while a similar experience united the 2015 movement under the #feesmustfall and “outsourcingmustfall” mobilisations. The focus was to target a specific area at the right time and then watch it spread. The timing of the #OMF mobilization was impeccable at the start of a new year when new students entered the system.

Tactical stage of the class struggle

Social movements identify the broader, societal challenges of a worker issue while leaders tend to focus on the issue at hand, whether new union infiltration, wages strikes and so forth. Leaders, therefore, need to pay greater attention to the broader societal narrative to understand the context and how it aligns to their operational practices and stakeholders. The #OMF campaign has provided the working class with an important example of how new mass working class organisations can be built through struggles that demonstrate in practice their relevance to workers. The issue of outsourcing, for example, was highlighted much earlier than October 2015 but the event of xenophobia attacks re-directed the mobilization. If managers paid attention, they could have stepped in earlier to address the issue and started working on a resolve before a major social mobilization started again.

The worker discontent in both instances was also not entirely new and some parts of leadership were aware of the problem. At Marikana it was found that there was an inadequate intelligence network in the organization (HRBPP report) and a similar background to the issues of the outsourced workers were reported during the #OMF mobilization.

The impression is given that workers were not seen as people but as a commodity

We need to move away from trying to ‘manage’ processes of change which we generally cannot control. Rather, understand the context and learn from incidents, to enable you to improved facilitation of change.


  1. The Marikana massacre took place between 10 August and 20 September 2012 and presented a lethal use of force by SA security forces against civilians. 34 Mine workers died and 78 were wounded, and more than 250 people arrested. The illegal strike originated from a deadlocked wage negotiation, but the social context was a prevailing feature. Some commentary referred to the incident as the ‘ANC’s Sharpeville’. According to investigative journalist, Terry Bell, Marikana was a watershed, a turning point that is likely to have a profound and long-term impact on South Africa’s social and political environment. “But, unlike other watersheds over the past 53 years, it may provide the basis for political diversification rather than uniting disparate opponents of a single authority,” (Citypress, 2012).
  2. Eckstein, 2014
  3. Farlam, I. (2012). Marikana commision of inquiry: Report on matters of public, national and international concern arising out of the tragic incidents at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, the North West province, Government Gazette (35680), 12 September 2012
  4. Johns, G. (2006). The essential impact of context on organisational behavior, Academy of Management Review, 31(2), 386-408.
  5. Stouten
  6. Weber, 2006.

Dr Natasha Winkler-Titus is an I/O Psychologist (HPCSA/ SiopSA Exco) and Management Consultant focusing on organisational effectiveness, development and facilitating change and leadership development.

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