Business need not be powerless in the face of current challenges in South Africa – in fact, companies should become active corporate citizens as the health of our democracy depends on our ability to get involved in issues that have a direct impact on business.
This is the view of Vuyiswa Ramokgopa, national chairperson of nascent party Rise Mzansi, managing director of VRES Holdings, and co-founder and managing partner of AWIP Investment Holdings, who delivered the opening keynote address of the 2023 Trialogue Business in Society conference.
“We’re dealing with major challenges – loadshedding, corruption, the collapse of services in dysfunctional municipalities,” she told delegates. “All these issues don’t just cause discomfort – they have a direct financial impact on business. When social challenges are endemic, they start to erode the sustainability of businesses. How do we respond to the abnormal times in which we find ourselves?”
Ramokgopa said a reactive response is “too late” and business should consider using its “substantial power and influence” to guide policymaking.
“Business should decide what issues are on the menu and how we can get behind what’s most important for us,” she noted. “Surely the person paying the bill gets to decide what’s on the menu? It’s time to step up and make our voices heard.”
Companies should be societal leaders
In the ordinary course of business, corporate social investment (CSI) would fund education programmes and entrepreneurs, engage in outreach, and partner with foundations or non-profit organisations to work on projects aligned with the business strategy.
However, while CSI has a vital role to play in resolving government failures after the fact, or closing gaps in delivery by delivering those services the government can’t, business can do more to effect social change in times of need. This is because companies are legal beings with political and other rights.
“They can participate in political discourse and action – they’re allowed to have opinions,” she pointed out. “If they want to do so, they can take a political stance and act on it.”
She drew attention to Anglo American’s role in helping to bring down the apartheid government by pressuring it to pass more progressive legislation. In recent weeks, CEOs of big companies have spoken out about the consequences of government failure in society, for example Pick n Pay’s disclosure of how loadshedding will have a direct impact on food security.
“Companies no longer have the luxury to be apolitical, especially where they see existential threats to their business and consequences for broader society,” she pointed out, adding that societal leadership has become a core function of business.
The expanded role of business
Ramokgopa quoted Harry Oppenheimer: “A company can, when powered with beliefs and principles, be a positive agent of change in a way in which good governments welcome and bad governments fear.”
She asserted that the expanded role of business can mean participating in democratic initiatives such as investing in voter education or registration campaigns.
“One of the biggest threats to democracy is low voter turnout,” Ramokgopa explained. “We’re governed by a minority because people eligible to vote simply don’t vote. This is an existential threat to democracy. Business has an opportunity to fund and participate in civic education programmes.”
She suggested that companies can also indicate which political actors or issues they agree with, to drive debate in society.
“For the first time in 30 years of democracy, we are faced with uncertainty about the future. Nobody has the answers,” she said. “However, the answers will not come from us sitting in comfortable silence but from our asking difficult questions, having difficult conversations, and pushing the powers that be in a certain direction. The days of saying ‘the business of business in business’ are effectively over, because businesses are being asked to fund things that were previously funded by government.”
Ramokgopa said democracy is a team sport as it can’t be outsourced, and only the collective wisdom and intelligence of societal stakeholders can arrive at optimal solutions for the country.
“Nobody is coming to save us – but everyone has a place at the table, and it’s your right and responsibility to exercise that voice,” she indicated. She added that “listening politics” is vital – that is, understanding that communities have clear ideas about what they need and want, and should be entrusted with a share of voice.
When it comes to funding political parties, the issue is not clear-cut, but “democracy must be funded and supported because we need to fund the change we want to see.” She noted that “getting 60 million people to vote is costly. However, if it’s not funded by the good people in the room, it will be funded by the bad ones,” she warned.
She also urged businesspeople to get involved in politics. “When we outsource politics to the least capable or deserving in society, we must accept the outcomes of that,” she said. “We can’t have a situation where the most ethical, capable, technically competent people are sitting in business and civil society. We can’t abdicate the responsibility of politics to others and relinquish our democratic rights and active citizenship.”
She concluded by saying “real change in society happens when ordinary people choose to do extraordinary things on a daily basis.”