Friday 16 February 2024

What is business’s role in public discourse and what is its responsibility in shaping South Africa’s future state?

During Lent, the Archbishop is issuing a series of reflections on the challenges facing different sections of South African society, motivated by our readings in the Lectionary and based on conversations with and inputs from influential leaders in their fields. His first reflection focuses on the business sector.

One of my greatest disappointments about our country today is how cynical we have become, particularly when it comes to the role of business in public discourse. One of the lessons my father taught me that has stuck with me was never to become a cynic, reflected in the saying: “A cynic is one who, when smelling the scent of flowers, looks around for a coffin. Don’t ever become that person.”

Those who know me know that I am the antithesis of a cynic. Yet, as I travel the country, the overwhelming reverberations of the conversations I have are that cynicism captures the national conversation, spirit and attitude in almost all segments of our South African society, particularly business. This has become the spark, the catalyst for a series of editorial challenges I plan to preach and write about over the next six weeks. My goal is to share with you my thoughts on the opportunities the various sectors of our country have to impact positively our upcoming election in the short term and shape our future in the long term.

As we enter the season of Lent, our lections stress that true fasting seeks, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free, which in South Africa today means growing our economy with the objective of sharing its fruits more equitably.

Where to start? Perhaps it is no more complicated than having the courage simply to say: “Enough is enough!” In society we always pay a penalty for indifference and inaction. Unquestionably, taking action always involves risks, but adopting a position of comfortable inaction carries much greater risks.

In South Africa, we have long had a love-hate relationship with business and the success that can be derived from it. Thirty years after winning our political liberation, despite falling short of our objective of achieving economic liberation, our relationship with business has improved considerably.

For many it has grown from hate to love, largely because it has been seen as democratic—ethically conducted, it spreads its benefits broadly, and success in it is often viewed as a matter of merit, not just luck. Not only that: it has become the tie that not only binds the culture but defines it to a large degree.

As a result, many South Africans have developed an almost religious belief in the power of business. The durability of the business community through all our country’s crises and the vortex of governmental corruption, ineptness and incapacity has led to the belief that the sector can remedy all of our challenges and deliver the country to the promised land. This is testimony to the quality of many, but not all, of our business leaders—especially of those who represent quality of character, make values-based decisions and genuinely have South Africa’s best interests in both their hearts and their minds.

Business has in many areas been seen positively for the last two decades or more, but it will be viewed positively only as long as it is seen as capable of delivering the goods. The great question is, how will the business world cope if and when it cannot meet everybody’s needs? What is it going to be like for people if the bottom falls out?

Today, as our economy keeps cooling, as the government displays its inadequacy, and as we contemplate an election in which we have an unprecedented range of new parties to choose from, I believe that 60 million South Africans would like business leaders to contemplate and answer a number of questions:

    • How can I help create equal opportunities for all?
    • How can my business work to overcome the continuing inequality in a society which claims to want to eliminate it?
    • How can I reduce the polarisation being pushed by some political parties?
    • Given the positive attitude to business of many young people, how can companies be a catalyst for championing youth voter registration?
    • How can companies use their political influence responsibly?
    • What role can business play in exemplifying courage in meeting these challenges?

There are three practical steps business can take to address these questions:

The first step is probably the most difficult. It involves the business community showing its spine by refusing to do any business with the state without government making a tangible shift towards meeting its responsibilities, addressing inequalities of opportunity and service delivery, and making demonstrable efforts to root out systemic corruption.

The second step is for companies to create working groups at top executive and board level to draw up corporate political responsibility strategies, as distinct from social responsibility strategies, focusing on the company’s role in creating the architecture for the future state of South Africa.

The third step is to have these executive-level committees answer the six questions that I’ve asked above, and to consider whether it isn’t time for South African companies to rethink, redefine and reset their corporate social responsibility strategies to align with corporate political responsibility strategies.

In urging business to take this path, I am conscious that corporate leaders face complex questions about whom they represent and on what basis. Big business has traditionally avoided taking overt political stances; after all, why would they want to alienate potential customers? But in reality, the line demarcating business from politics has never been more than a convenient fiction — one that becomes less credible with each passing year.

In other parts of the world, companies are urged to balance the interests of all their stakeholders, not just shareholders but also their staff, their customers and their potential customers among the wider population. But the desire to balance stakeholder interests and speak up for employees or customers on high-stakes societal questions is colliding with the realities of divided, polarised workforces, political dysfunction, and anger about corporate hypocrisy.

What is needed are considered and deliberate strategies for speaking up. Lacking both the authority and the mechanisms to advocate or represent everyone’s interests in a coherent way, corporate leaders risk undermining both their businesses and other societal institutions when they claim that they can — or feel that they must.

My friends in business tell me that companies tend to make three big mistakes when setting and publicising societal, political, and environmental priorities.

Firstly, they aspire to speak out on too many issues to appease stakeholders in the short term. Making a public statement is often a way to compensate for, or distract from, a lack of meaningful action. Secondly, organisations fail to set tight priorities, ending up with a laundry list of too many goals and aspirations. When companies suggest that they can address every relevant issue, they over-promise and under-deliver, fuelling impatience and diminishing trust. Thirdly, senior leadership teams tend to set strategy and goals in isolation from the rest of their workforce or delegate the task to teams of consultants.

Business experts urge that changing the way companies determine their priorities—and whom they involve—can correct all three errors. They need to listen to a wide range of concerns and opinions, including those of their employees, then focus on the handful of issues they are truly capable of prioritising.

In South Africa, we are seeing strong external as well as internal drivers that are forcing companies to define themselves as social and political actors in addition to their traditional role as economic engines. Whether leadership teams like it or not, putting one’s head in the sand is no longer a viable option. Perceptive and innovative businesses move proactively with these trends and turn them into opportunities and competitive advantages.

Of course, we need to be careful not to expect business – or for that matter government, or any other institution – to create heaven on earth. When we put too much confidence in any worldly system, it is bound to disappoint us at some point. So business, and the great striving that accompanies it, will continue to be one of the most significant forces in South African culture, but it will always struggle against people’s need for a perspective that is beyond these worlds. We all have to get used to that tension.

It seems to me that at our best, in South Africa we have held individualism and a communitarian spirit in creative tension. We need to keep doing that if we are to maintain social stability. In my view, we are in a time in this country in which our faith in capitalism has combined with a radical sense of individualism to create a dangerous degree of selfishness. It is expressed in the sense, “I have got mine; you get yours. I am going to hold on to mine, and I will support a system that allows you to hold onto yours, but I am not going to share any of mine.” Even worse, there are political and government leaders who justify corruption with the phrase, “It's our turn to eat.” Those ways of thinking corrupt capitalism, putting a sharp, mean face on a system that has the capacity to do great good.

If you treat success in business as life’s ultimate goal, then it becomes a great, glowering, impressive, but empty and futile, tin god. Business must be a means, not the end. 

††Thabo Cape Town

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