Corporate social investment (CSI) has the power to unleash “the generosity of strangers” to address South Africa’s inequality, poverty, unemployment, and the indignities imposed by those ills, said former Public Protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela, now Social Justice Chair at Stellenbosch University.
In doing so, she says, CSI will help to unlock the so-called ‘democracy dividend’, enabling South Africans to embrace and benefit from not only democracy, but their freedom, and to have a stake in nurturing faith in democracy and humanity. She was delivering the keynote address at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference, held in Johannesburg on 8 May.
Strong sense of responsibility must accompany power and privilege
She recounted how her own parents – a farmworker and a domestic worker – could only afford to pay for her schooling until Grade Seven and how scholarships and grants enabled her to pursue the career of her choice. “That means I have the privilege of being at the forefront of the democracy dividend; a position of social, political and economic power, that brings with it an obligation to ensure social justice,” said Prof Madonsela.
“Business is in a position of power and privilege and business has a voice, in the same way that when you become an Advocate, you have a voice. It also means that you have an obligation to leverage your influence for good,” she explained. That extends to ethical business, said Prof Madonsela, explaining that even the most vigorous CSI can’t compensate for a business underpaying its employees or suppliers, or overcharging its customers. She cited the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child” and suggested that all South Africans, including business, have an important role to play in driving social justice.
Businesses could go beyond giving; to collecting. A national plan for social justice could achieve this by mobilising resources in society and asking enterprises to be channels for the collection of money from everyone who wants to contribute. Banks, for example, could do more with the money in the ‘bank my change’ pot. The money collected could be channelled through champions for social justice, to determine how to distribute the funds for the country’s future. Asked about who could be appointed to such a national council, Prof Madonsela responded that: “We need people who don’t need money. People who have shown they are purpose-driven and impact-conscious and who are ethical leaders.”
A call to ‘connect the lights’
The indignities imposed by poverty, inequality and unemployment can imperil democracy. As a counterpoint, effective CSI can drive justice, where the Sustainable Development Goals become community goals, and where social justice has the power to help insulate a nascent democracy from the perils of corruption and exclusion, and inequality between and within communities.
“It may take hundreds of years to address the legacy of apartheid, but even if apartheid had never happened, it would still be our duty to make sure nobody is left behind. CSI might not be able to end inequality, but it can reduce its extremity,” suggested Prof Madonsela. She encouraged delegates to examine the role of business in helping to bring about systemic social change by supporting social justice interventions and reminded delegates that they were lighting small candles. “The darkness seems to overcome us individually, but candles together defeat the darkness. There is a need to scale and connect the lights,” she said.
Inaugural Trialogue research on social justice in 2017 found that only 11% of South African companies support social justice interventions, with less than 1% of total CSI spend allocated to this issue.
Image © Brett Eloff