Social licence to operate

In his overview presentation on social licence to operate at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference, Nedbank Executive Head of Public Affairs, Thabang Chiloane, shared the key message of the imperative for community engagement from Ernesto Sirolli’s Ted Talk, entitled Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

As a young man, Sirolli worked for an Italian non-profit that ran projects in Africa. The organisation saw vast, fertile land along the banks of the Zambezi River and decided to teach the Zambians how to cultivate the land. They paid the community (who were reluctant to participate) to attend agricultural training. They grew hundreds of tomatoes and zucchinis which, when ripe, were eaten by the hippos from the river. When the non-profit workers asked the community why they didn’t warn them not to plant in that area, the community responded: “You never asked”.

Defining and attaining social licence to operate

Milton Friedman’s saying, that “the business of business is business” encapsulates the prevailing thinking of the 1970s. “Now, we want to challenge that – the business of business in everybody’s business. If we want to be socially correct, we must remember that, as business people, we ‘serve’ at the behest of society. If we do not have that social licence to operate, we may as well close our doors,” said Chiloane.

He explained that social licence to operate is not a piece of paper, and that it is not limited to business. “All organisations need it, and it is about approval and acceptance of the local community so that you will be able to successfully undertake your activities on a day-to-day basis. It is hard to get, hard to maintain and very easily lost. But when you have it, you will be able to share what you are doing with society.  And when we say ‘share’, we mean that society benefits somehow from your making your money. And when they see that they benefit, they will protect you – physically and also by being advocates of your business. Parties will share information, develop a shared language and understanding, mutual recognition. It is about moving from ‘do no harm’, to proactively helping,” said Chiloane.

He outlined three key steps towards attaining a social licence to operate:

  1. Be a social leader.
    “Make a meaningful difference, starting with a bold goal, shared by many, and a way forward that is smart, focused and orientated towards social and business outcomes. In other words, find a sore point in society and do something about it. Being a leader means doing something that no one else does, and doing it so well that others want to follow you.
  2. Give more control to local communities and stakeholders.
    “When you have identified that sore point, you need to find out from the community how to solve it.”
  3. Build partnerships with both the right and the wrong NGOs.
    “The right ones – obviously. The ‘wrong’ NGOs – this is about perception. You may get another point of view. Collaboration is the way.”

Following his presentation, Chiloane was joined by Ferial Haffajee (Editor-at-large of The Huffington Post South Africa), Shirley Raman (Chief Director of Research and NGO Development at the Gauteng Department of Social Development), and conference MC and session facilitator, Thabang Skwambane, for a panel discussion on the state of, and how, social licence to operate could be improved in South Africa.In her opening comments, Ferial Haffajee challenged: “We cannot have any debates on social licence to operate unless and until we have an economy that looks like the society in which it operates.” Citing findings from the latest Commission for Employment Equity Report, Haffajee said that top management in South Africa remains white.

“Every year the Commission on Employment Equity releases a statement that is either a carrot, or a stick. This year, they stated that prosecutions would increase. Then everyone cries out, but nothing is done. This continues to display the view that money, wealth and power remain white. Allied to this view is that business is white. And even if this is not actually true, it is how things are perceived. There is a view that apartheid has not ended. This is not true, but the view persists. Our vibrant CSI society must co-exist with the formal economy. Young black people must see themselves as represented. Democratic firmament and social licence to operate must co-exist,” said Haffajee.

A call for cross-sector alignment of priorities

“Business cannot excuse itself from society. South Africa has a lot of money and resources, but we work in such a fragmented way. We do not want to work together and pool our resources. And then business suffers. CSR is important. It does a good job. But it’s very scattered. We need to move from a welfare approach to a developmental approach, but government cannot do this alone. We need to talk together about how we make the best out of the resources we have,” said Raman, adding that business should align itself to government priorities.

Chiloane said that Nedbank did, in fact, partner with government – the Department of Education in particular. “We read what government puts out, and we also monitor the requests we get from communities. We then look at where our priorities lie. Perhaps, though, we could do more as an industry – united – to help. If we identified one project as an industry, we could alleviate it quickly,” he said.

Haffajee agreed, suggesting that, instead of incremental projects that failed to bring about systemic change, the private sector should pick a big goal, such as employing the three million unemployed young people in South Africa.


This session was presented in partnership with


  • Ferial Haffajee, The Huffington Post South Africa
  • Thabang Chiloane, Nedbank
  • Shirley Raman, Gauteng Department of Social Development
  • Thabang Skwambane (Facilitator)

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2017-12-04T18:37:47+00:00 June 5th, 2017|Social Licence to Operate|