Defend Truth

OP-ED

Ensuring durability – The three practical steps big business can take to help save SA

Ensuring durability – The three practical steps big business can take to help save SA

Perhaps business in South Africa should consider whether it isn’t time to rethink, redefine and reset their corporate social responsibility strategies to align with corporate political responsibility strategies.

In South Africa, we have long had a love-hate relationship with business and the success that can be derived from it. Thirty years after winning our political liberation, despite falling short of our objective of achieving economic liberation, our relationship with business has improved considerably.

For many it has grown from hate to love, largely because it has been seen as democratic — ethically conducted, it spreads its benefits broadly, and success in business is often viewed as a matter of merit, not just luck. Not only that: it has become the tie that not only binds the culture but defines it, to a large degree.

Even worse, there are political and government leaders who justify corruption with the phrase: “It’s our turn to eat.”

As a result, many South Africans have developed an almost religious belief in the power of business. The durability of the business community through all our country’s crises and the vortex of governmental corruption, ineptness and incapacity has led to the belief that the sector can remedy all of our challenges and deliver the country to the promised land. This is testimony to the quality of many, but not all, of our business leaders — especially of those who represent quality of character, make values-based decisions and genuinely have South Africa’s best interests in both their hearts and minds.

Business has in many areas been seen positively for the last two decades or more, but it will be viewed positively only as long as it is seen as capable of delivering the goods. The great question is, how will the business world cope if and when it cannot meet everybody’s needs? What is it going to be like for people if the bottom falls out?

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Frustrated and anxious’ business leaders step up to help SA fix energy, transport and corruption crises

Today, as our economy keeps cooling, as the government displays its inadequacy, and as we contemplate an election in which we have an unprecedented range of new parties to choose from, I believe that 60 million South Africans would like business leaders to contemplate and answer a number of questions:

  • How can I help create equal opportunities for all?
  • How can my business work to overcome the continuing inequality in a society which claims to want to eliminate it?
  • How can I reduce the polarisation being pushed by some political parties?
  • Given the positive attitude of many young people to business, how can companies be a catalyst for championing youth voter registration?
  • How can companies use their political influence responsibly? and
  • What role can business play in exemplifying courage in meeting these challenges?

There are three practical steps business can take to address these questions:

The first step is probably the most difficult. It involves the business community showing its spine by refusing to do any business with the state, without government making a tangible shift towards meeting its responsibilities, addressing inequalities of opportunity and service delivery, and making demonstrable efforts to root out systemic corruption.

The second step is for companies to create working groups at top executive and board level, to draw up corporate political responsibility strategies, as distinct from social responsibility strategies, focusing on the company’s role in creating the architecture for the future state of South Africa.

The third step is to have these executive-level committees answer the six questions that I’ve asked above, and to consider whether it isn’t time for South African companies to rethink, redefine and reset their corporate social responsibility strategies to align with corporate political responsibility strategies.

In urging business to take this path, I am conscious that corporate leaders face complex questions about whom they represent and on what basis. Big business has traditionally avoided taking overt political stances; after all, why would they want to alienate potential customers?

But in reality, the line demarcating business from politics has never been more than a convenient fiction — one that becomes less credible with each passing year.

In other parts of the world, companies are urged to balance the interests of all their stakeholders, not just shareholders but also their staff, their customers and their potential customers among the wider population. But the desire to balance stakeholder interests and speak up for employees or customers on high-stakes societal questions is colliding with the realities of divided, polarised workforces, political dysfunction, and anger about corporate hypocrisy.

What is needed are considered and deliberate strategies for speaking up. Lacking both the authority and the mechanisms to advocate or represent everyone’s interests in a coherent way, corporate leaders risk undermining both their businesses and other societal institutions when they claim that they can – or feel that they must.

Three big corporate mistakes

My friends in business tell me that companies tend to make three big mistakes when setting and publicising societal, political and environmental priorities.

Firstly, they aspire to speak out on too many issues to appease stakeholders in the short term. Making a public statement is often a way to compensate for, or distract from, a lack of meaningful action.

Secondly, organisations fail to set tight priorities, ending up with a laundry list of too many goals and aspirations. When companies suggest that they can address every relevant issue, they over-promise and under-deliver, fuelling impatience and diminishing trust.

Thirdly, senior leadership teams tend to set strategy and goals in isolation from the rest of their workforce or delegate the task to teams of consultants.

Business experts urge that changing the way companies determine their priorities — and whom they involve — can correct all three errors. They need to listen to a wide range of concerns and opinions, including those of their employees, then focus on the handful of issues they are truly capable of prioritising.

Social and political actors

In South Africa, we are seeing strong external as well as internal drivers that are forcing companies to define themselves as social and political actors, in addition to their traditional role as economic engines. Whether leadership teams like it or not, putting one’s head in the sand is no longer a viable option. 

Perceptive and innovative businesses move proactively with these trends and turn them into opportunities and competitive advantages.

Read more in Daily Maverick: World’s most critical issues are aired at Davos — and SA has a chance to state its case

Of course, we need to be careful not to expect business — or for that matter government, or any other institution — to create heaven on Earth. When we put too much confidence in any worldly system, it is bound to disappoint us at some point.

So business, and the great striving that accompanies it, will continue to be one of the most significant forces in South African culture, but it will always struggle against people’s need for a perspective that is beyond these worlds. We all have to get used to that tension.

It seems to me that at our best, in South Africa we have held individualism and a communitarian spirit in creative tension. We need to keep doing that if we are to maintain social stability. In my view, we are in a time in this country in which our faith in capitalism has combined with a radical sense of individualism to create a dangerous degree of selfishness.

It is expressed in the sense: “I have got mine; you get yours. I am going to hold on to mine, and I will support a system that allows you to hold onto yours, but I am not going to share any of mine.”

Even worse, there are political and government leaders who justify corruption with the phrase: “It’s our turn to eat.” Those ways of thinking corrupt capitalism, putting a sharp, mean face on a system that has the capacity to do great good.

If you treat success in business as life’s ultimate goal, then it becomes a great, glowering, impressive, but empty and futile tin god. Business must be a means, not the end. DM

Thabo Makgoba is Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. This reflection is based on conversations with and inputs from influential business leaders.

 

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.