In October 2017 SECTION27, the human rights and social justice advocacy organisation that I lead, launched a corporate challenge. We wrote to over 100 CEOs of South Africa’s top companies and asked them to invest up to a million rand in SECTION27. By doing so, we said, they would be “investing in constitutional values, social justice and activism for socio-economic rights”. In particular, we said, they would be supporting campaigns to improve access to health care services and basic education.
Then we waited for responses.
One afternoon in early December, as I was sitting in the ostentatious and expensive foyer of one of the big five private law firms in Sandton, a space bedecked with paintings and fountains, an email from one of the big corporates we had written to flashed across my screen on its way to my inbox. By coincidence that companies’ under-construction elaborate new offices were visible to me on the other side of Katherine Drive: the work of the latest architect given free reign to try and create a New York by the Jukskei.
Clearly no expenses were being spared there.
The letter politely declined our invitation and said: “While we would like to be partner of this initiative, we are limited to the number of opportunities we can support as we have a broad programme of activities to which we are currently committed.”
Well, on the face of it yes, except this was one of many similar letters. At least it was an improvement on the over 50 CEOs who did not respond at all.
“The business of business is business,” we are told. CEOs and their Boards are free to invest where they want. We also hear that corporates feel put upon by the many demands made on them by government and NGOs for financial support. Hence appeals like ours will often just be pushed away. In this milieu it takes a far-sighted CEO to see that deepening poverty and inequality is not good for business in the long run.
But the underlying issue – businesses’ disconnect from social injustice and inequality – is a deeper one, and one we should debate. Remaining aloof from social justice advocacy plays into the notion that corporates are not committed to social justice and that Corporate Social Investment (CSI) is a benign but ultimately self-interested box-ticking exercise.
Although organisations like Business Leadership SA (BLSA) are trying to change this with their Contract with South Africa and Integrity Pledge the truth is that most of big business is complacent about about social justice. This is evident from the luke warm response to our appeal. There are three possible reasons for this:
- Business doesn’t understand social justice advocacy and its place in our constitutional democracy;
- These behemoths are afraid that an association with an outspoken social rights organisation is bad for business;
- They don’t care.
I will try to answer each one in turn.
Our constitutional democracy is a prototype. It is unique because it makes people a necessary part of good government. Its claim to be a participatory democracy is not just rhetoric. It is built into the DNA of the Constitution. People are encouraged to speak out, to petition, to campaign for a cause, to stand up for their legal rights – and those of others.
But, as Justice Edwin Cameron likes saying, the Constitution will not be self-enacting. It needs activist people, who know their rights and have the means to organise and inform others. This is the role played by social justice organisation like Equal Education, the Black Sash, Corruption Watch, SECTION27, the Treatment Action Campaign, Right2Know and several others.
Actually, independent social justice activism, including activism that holds business to account and exposes collusion, is good for business. Accountability, rule of law and resistance to arbitrary action by both government and the private powers is a way to ensure efficiency, predictability and genuine accountability in markets. Witness for example the role civil society organisations like Save South Africa and others have played in the push-back against corruption and State Capture.
This is the business of organisations like SECTION27. We pursue social justice for children who need textbooks or toilets; social justice for the victims of the Esidimeni massacre; social justice and equality for people who need affordable medicines in the health system.
But most important to understand is the fact that our Constitution disavows a dog-eat-dog country. It weds South Africans, that is all of us who live or do business here, to the quest for equality and social justice. We challenge business to embrace this notion and invest their money where it will yield dividends not only for private shareholders but for our society as a whole. We challenge them to follow the example of the few CEOs who responded positively to our call.
Second, there are those businesses who are afraid of association with outspoken NGOs or social movements. Some fear that funding social justice work will prejudice their access to tenders and suggest they have a political agenda. Others are afraid that our campaigns target injustice and unlawful conduct in business as much as they do in government. This may well be a risk, but it is something that should be confronted and debated, rather than silently sanctioned. As one of our business investors said: “Our funding to SECTION27 should not put us in any way to receive preferential treatment or waiver, should SECTION27 find an issue with any of our activities. I sincerely hope that we don’t have such an instance given how we conduct ourselves, but in the unfortunate event should such an issue ever emerge, we will want SECTION27 to handle this impartially – which I am sure you will do from your own good governance point of view.”
Finally, and sadly, there are still many in business who just don’t care about our society and its people. Not caring is not an option in a society where the only chance at a sound business investment is ensuring that the economic and political climate is sustainable. Not caring means that you are effectively registering your tacit consent in an illegitimate system of governance that will inevitably implode and swallow us all. Our appeal is not to you. DM