Looting and violent protests brought South Africa to a screeching halt in July. Recognising that corporate social investment (CSI) programming has already had to significantly adapt and pivot since the onset of the pandemic, Trialogue convened a closed dialogue for CSI practitioners to connect in this time of crisis and to think creatively about how to leverage corporate access and resources to provide immediate relief, as well systemic change, in our fractured society.

This session, held on 22 July, was facilitated by Colleen Magner, managing director of Reos Partners.

Nomfundo Mogapi, founder and CEO of the Centre for Mental Wellness and Leadership (CMWL) framed the conversation within the context of the collective transgenerational trauma that underpins the broader issues of poverty, unemployment, and inequality in South Africa. “We need to look at how to invest in long-term interventions that shift the core architecture of South Africa, especially on a psychological level,” she said, pointing out that viewing events through a ‘trauma lens’ helps us to better understand people’s actions. From political leadership retaining a liberation mindset ill-suited to governing, to communities experiencing shame and frustration because they have been unable to emerge from “the disenfranchisement of the past”, much psychosocial healing needs to take place.

Importantly, community leaders and people on the frontline of the crisis require psychosocial support to allow them to facilitate healing in their communities – “witnessing, emotional containment and creating an environment in which people are heard” can help, along with cultivating a trauma-conscious approach so as not to exacerbate the violence. This also applies to business leaders engaging with the communities that they serve.

Sue Wildish, managing director of the non-profit organisation (NPO) The Lunchbox Fund, spoke about how the organisation’s warehouse was overrun, with 560 boxes of food stolen, but its immediate priority was to ensure that field workers were safe and to reassure regular food beneficiaries that food would be redistributed and delivered. The pandemic had forced The Lunchbox Fund to pivot its nutritional programme into relief feeding in 2020 and, in response to the shame associated with receiving food handouts, the organisation designed a food parcel that could be presented as a gift – from one human being to another. Wildish said that during the recent crisis the NPO “learned how to lean in and respect everyone we dealt with, no matter how often they asked for difficult things in the middle of the night”.

While corporate participants shared how their companies had responded to the crisis by providing staff and communities directly impacted with essential food parcels, diapers, formula and chronic medication, one participant spoke about the challenges of accessing emergency funds from corporate budgets because of prior funding allocations.

Another participant shared that her company held an Ideathon to come up with ways to offer assistance, some of which involved networking among employees to solve the problem of food shortages. “We can look outward, but we should also look inward, among our employees and clients, to come up with solutions,” she said. Employees rallied to ensure that there were enough food parcels for all employees in KwaZulu-Natal, speaking to the power of leveraging internal networks.

Another crisis plaguing the country – particularly in the Western Cape – during the period that this session was held was the taxi violence. A participant noted that some businesses affected by taxi violence in Cape Town were housing their employees in hotels, which may demonstrate good crisis management, but does little for long-term, sustained, structural reform. “We can’t keep putting a Band Aid over a wound because we’re inconvenienced,” she noted.

From meeting immediate needs to promoting systemic change

Trialogue director Cathy Duff emphasised that companies have all responded similarly to the crisis – first ensuring that their employees were safe and provisioned, then communicating an intention to rebuild with all stakeholder groups. “During the pandemic, we have seen companies supporting their NPO partners in new ways, responding more quickly and flexibly,” she said. However, even though we have seen a huge amount of collaboration across business groupings and organisations, with Business for South Africa (B4SA) and the Solidarity Fund two notable outcomes, we have not seen similar collaboration in the CSI space. “We have seen few initiatives that deliberately drive collaboration in CSI, but there have been increased calls for this and we should take it forward,” Duff said.

The broader question of how to address the underlying issues leading to the crisis has yet to be addressed by many companies. “Traditionally, we have found corporate South Africa quite reluctant to fund social justice initiatives – advocacy, holding government to account, and furthering democracy through awareness and legal support to build citizenship on the ground,” Duff said. “Companies should think about how they can play a role to build more proactive citizenship.”

She asserted that companies need to be vocal on societal issues, support organisations doing social justice and advocacy work, and hold stakeholders to account. In addition, they should consider ways to support unregistered grassroots movements – if not with financing, then with pro bono support.

In conclusion, Mogapi raised the important point that, during the transition to democracy, international funders invested in trauma counselling but stepped aside after the 1994 election. “We aborted the healing work, and we should go back to that,” she said. “We need to capacitate people, particularly those working in important development priorities. We need psychosocial advisors to run programmes and this could be integrated into CSI.”

Discussion points for CSI practitioners

Internal transformation

  • Look after the mental health of employees.
  • Be mindful of the language you use when responding to crises.
  • Consider what leadership is being expressed in your organisation, and whether leaders are sufficiently trauma conscious. Listen to the experiences of employees, clients and other stakeholders.


External considerations

  • Think out of the box when it comes to funding.
  • Listen to what is most needed and redesign processes accordingly.
  • Set up crisis management or disaster preparedness teams to address challenges where necessary.
  • Design programmes to train leaders about trauma awareness and self-care strategies. Ensure that the concept of trauma becomes part of public discourse.
  • Systems change requires structural collaboration, from communicating with existing stakeholders to working with a variety of different stakeholders, from government to grassroots movements, leveraging networks to shift conversations.
  • Get comfortable with the idea of making longer-term strategic shifts that are not just about quantifying impact.