A panel discussion at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2018, facilitated by CEO of the Social Justice Initiative (SJI) Bongiwe Mlangeni, explored why and how companies should help to make the societies in which they operate more equitable.



Defining social justice

SJI was established in 2013 to encourage individuals, philanthropists and corporates to invest in organisations fighting to protect democracy and enable social justice. In the last five years, the organisation has raised over R100 million — 70% of which came from South Africans – and benefiting more than 50 organisations that advocate for access to social justice, work to influence policy and hold government accountable.

At its inception, SJI first sought to define a common understanding of the meaning of social justice. “Through those discussions, four key aspects emerged, which are fundamental for anyone to say there is social justice,” said Mlangeni. These key aspects are:

  1. Focus on systemic change, rather than small-scale impact at community level. This requires an understanding of recurring issues that disadvantage people, are generational, and which are deeply rooted in structural power.
  2. Consideration of unequal power relations in society, which exist in gender, race and class, among others.
  3. Focus on equitable redistribution of wealth
  4. Commitment to the restoration of people’s dignity 

Reviving active corporate citizenship

Business has an important role to play in transforming the unequal power dynamics that exist in our society, and bolstering systemic change.

Prof William Gumede, Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, reflected on strong civil society and active citizenship as values enshrined in the South African Constitution, but said that South Africans took a backseat and let the jubilation of democracy take over, leaving the government in charge of redressing inequality – an approach which has failed a majority of poor working-class people.

According to Prof Gumede policies such as BEE, which have amassed amounts reaching up to R1 trillion from business from 1993 to now, have only benefitted a select minority of ruling elites – a flaw that has come to light through the fearless scrutiny conducted by civil society organisations in the latter years of democracy and a detail that would be remiss to ignore, more especially when observing the unrelenting toil done by organisations such as Section27 and Black Sash who took the Government to court over their unjust behaviour.

According to Bonang Mohale, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, state capture eroded what business had been trying to mitigate for years. “As business, 24 years into democracy, we see ourselves as defenders of democracy. We want to join hands with civil society to become active citizens,” said Mohale.

The Integrity Fund

Mlangeni commented that it is easy to be defenders of democracy when things are going well, but that the real test comes when democracy is challenged. Referencing Trialogue’s annual CSI research, Mlangeni noted that only 11% of companies claimed to have invested in social justice and advocacy in 2017. Agreeing that commitment from business has been dismal, Mohale spoke about the Integrity Fund that was created by Business Leadership South Africa to deepen the fight against state capture, as well as to support state-owned enterprises with technical skills.

Mohale further explained the Integrity Fund as financial support, coupled with partnership that supports and defends organisations engaged in social justice work. The Integrity Fund, through SJI, supports organisations that espouse the promotion of integrity in business; strengthen institutions of democracy; advance accountable governance and anti-corruption initiatives; protect whistle-blowers, and strengthen the role of independent media.

Creating systemic change through intersectionality

Social justice, Mohale continued, means that the powerful need to do the extra work by reaching over to make sure that those who have less levers in society are supported. It is about broadening the conversation to include more stakeholders.

According to Prof Gumede, we need to ask ourselves how to do systemic change and redress in a business environment that follows a profit-based model that has made investment in human capital integral to the profit of the company. The irregularities and corruption that have come to surface from the corporate sector are also contributing to the distrust that most people who are left out of the profit model echo in their sentiments towards business.

There is a quest for businesses to play a part in society and to become co-creators and defenders of democracy as corporate citizens.  But what does this entail? Mohale said that there is much that is still left unaddressed in business; such as gender, race and the role of the youth (considering the staggering unemployment rate in the demographic).

Women, he said, find themselves disempowered in companies, where they are being paid 73% less than their male counterparts, yet gender equality is at the forefront of conversations in companies. In most cases, women must find male advocates to vouch for them to earn more. Similarly, he said, “It is white people who need to ensure that black people not only regain their self-esteem and dignity but that they get out of this vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of abject poverty. It is for men who are the beneficiaries of patriarchy to accept that God did not only create a male and female, but an entire spectrum of genders; that’s why we speak of the LGBTQI community.”

To reiterate the point of how the business community further alienates women and most caregivers, Mohale noted that most businesses set up meetings at times that make it impossible for caregivers, mostly mothers, to arrive fully prepared and that parents of very young children don’t have facilities or spaces that allow them to play well-rounded roles in their young children’s lives – such as crèches or daycare centres that make the trips to work shorter and more convenient. He also questioned the number of work days available for parents to take off to spend quality time with their children.

Prof Gumede offered that we look towards places such as Singapore, with similar colonial histories, if we want to ask how companies can play their role in modelling systemic changes. In Singapore they created an environment that was safe, corruption-free, had low taxation, and was unconstrained by unions to help business thrive. Or we could look towards South Korea and the role conglomerates such as Samsung have played by setting up universities focused on engineering and diversification of business offerings that grew the employment base. But more than anything, South Africa ought to change its social licence to operate from being profit driven, to one that takes into consideration matters of social justice. A sentiment echoed by Thabang Chiloane, Executive Head of Nedbank’s Group Public Affairs, when he said, “one cannot sleep peacefully at night if your neighbour is hungry.”

With all the considerations of changes that ought to be implemented in business, there is a segment of the population that is being left out or not invited to take up their seats at the table. This group is largely made up of young people. Mohale said that young people are saying, “nothing about us – even if it is for us – without us” and it is worth noting that young people as the future custodians of South Africa must be given the space to bring forth their own solutions and for society to accept that there is a call for a greater intersectionality when approaching social justice work.