Telling empowering stories, South Africans want to hear

Wednesday, 22 May 2024 09:38

Businesses urged to embrace the responsibility of leadership to help transform SA.

By Lehlohonolo Lehana.

Trialogue's 2024 Business in Society Conference created a lively platform for business and the non-profit sector to explore some of South African society's most pressing needs and how corporate social investment (CSI) interventions and collaborations might respond to these more effectively.

Hosted by Nozipho Tshabalala, the conference challenged thought leaders to strive for deeper connections and meaningful partnerships that will deliver the changes needed to support the education learning journey, enable entrepreneurship, secure sustainable agriculture and create jobs for young people.

Presenting the opening keynote address, University of the Free State chancellor Bonang Mohale reminded South African companies of their duty to contribute positively to society and encouraged them to embrace the responsibility of leadership to help transform the country for the better.

"Leadership is other centered not self-centered. It is a privilege to improve the quality of lives of others. Business itself cannot continue to be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty," Mohale told audiences.

He recommended that business seek ways to support the elements most likely to transform our society: transformation, ethical leadership, good governance, service delivery, law and order, and safety and security. Mohale cautioned that business must reflect deeply and profoundly on its own ethical position because "business itself needs to be steered back" so that it does not exacerbate the country's political challenges for corporate gain. "We realise that we need to continue to do well by doing good."

Mohale proposed that business strives to position itself as a trusted advisor to government doing everything in its power to facilitate a capable state, because "business has learned that it's better to deal with a capable state than one that is less capable." He called for deeper commitment to transformation and social justice that empowers women. "This economy must look like us. When all of us feel like we've got something to lose we will protect it like our life depends on it. South Africa is not a poor country, Africa is not a poor continent. Just poorly managed."

Supporting the education learning journey

Vodacom Foundation's input to the education-themed session demonstrated the value of a holistic approach to delivering education interventions. Having previously focused on the provision of connectivity and technology, the company has since adopted a broader approach that incorporates upgrading infrastructure and security, introducing learners to coding and robotics and providing psychosocial support, all of which help to ensure the sustainability of their interventions.

The panel discussion reinforced the importance of ensuring programme continuity beyond funder support with National Education Collaboration Trust Systems Capacity and Advisory Head Kanyisa Diamond noting that a key learning has been to "locate responsibility where it must be maintained in order to sustain it", even if this means capacitating the relevant bodies at provincial or district level.

The discussion identified the importance of long-term partnerships for both companies and NPOs, with robust monitoring and evaluation to achieve sustained change. It was proposed that NPOs might better support companies by tailoring their approach to prospective partners, highlighting mutual benefits, and identifying the pain points of the funder, matching these with the skills and expertise they can bring to the association.

"The problems we are dealing with are quite complex and intractable. We need a multiplicity of solutions," noted Diamond in her comments on the advantage of viewing education from an ecosystem approach. She also noted the importance of multiple actors in attempts to address education. "We can’t speak about collaboration enough. The problem is so big that no one party can solve it."

Creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship

The conference's Absa-sponsored session on entrepreneurship considered the factors needed to enable entrepreneurship in South Africa as one of the antidotes to the country’s crushing unemployment crisis. Session keynote and Stellenbosch University Allan Gray Centre for Africa Entrepreneurship director, Dr Phumlani Nkontwana spoke to the value of data in identifying the factors that might drive entrepreneurship in South Africa and the need for an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs. "If the ecosystem doesn't support entrepreneurship, we can't achieve anything,"he told delegates.

Absa Corporate Citizenship managing executive Dr Steven Zwane spoke of the need to shift South African mindsets to be more open to entrepreneurship as a career choice for young people, particularly given the tendency for entrepreneurialism to inspire the problem-solving thinking that the country needs.

Making space for diverse voices and multiple generations in entrepreneurial activities then creates the potential to transform small enterprises into legacy businesses, Gordon Institute of Business Associate Professor Anastacia Mamabolo noted.

Panelists explored how best to develop entrepreneurial enterprises, with UVU Africa Group CEO Ian Merrington advocating for a mentorship approach that meets entrepreneurs where they are at, while helping them from ideation to scale based on a sound understanding of market demand in thematic areas. He challenged a purely scientific approach to supporting entrepreneurship, drawing parallels between entrepreneurialism and creativity that suggest a more personal style of intervention may be required to grow entrepreneurs and their enterprises.

Transforming agricultural ecosystems for future resilience

Experts and panelists called for a multi-system, multi-sector and multi-actor approach to growing agriculture, without destroying the resources on which we depend. "With one in four South African children suffering malnutrition, food security is about more than agricultural production," says independent partnering and systems change practitioner Andrew Boraine. "It's about whether people get access to sufficient food and sufficient nutrition on a regular basis."

The panel identified the need for a stronger national food policy that understands the extensive interconnectedness of food security and other economic systems and a better governance framework for coordinating food systems in South Africa. Growing a sustainable agricultural sector requires an ecosystem approach that sees it as more than its value for generating employment and alleviating poverty. Such an approach must factor in not only production but also retail, formal and informal markets, consumer habits, management of food waste, the drivers of food pricing and the influence of climate change.

Skilling youth to meet the future

Experts discussed the necessary steps toward resolving the country's youth unemployment crisis in the Telkom-sponsored session. The conversation centered on the need for large-scale public and private partnerships to tackle the 45% youth unemployment rate.

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator CEO Kasthuri Soni described the scale, depth and complexity of youth unemployment as too significant to be solved by one player. She called for a willing coalition with shared objectives and aligned values.

Jobs Fund senior finance specialist Nazeem Hendricks echoed this sentiment. He noted that partnerships with the private sector give young people access to areas they might otherwise not be able to experience. This is especially important given how important it is to ensure young people have opportunities to experience the working world and to acquire critical skills to keep them economically active and resilient for as long as possible.

Pointing out that young South Africans who were unemployed at 30 are likely to be unemployed for life, Yellowwoods Holdings executive director Nicola Galombik urged businesses to own their power to respond to the problem and use their value chains to create jobs, rather than their corporate social investment. She encouraged companies to focus on where there is live opportunity and to grow local business sector service jobs. "We need to think of new skilling solutions that build on the potential of our young people, find them where they are, what they're already good at and what they already know. Then bridge them, quickly and effectively, into jobs that this economy already has with the skills and competence that this economy needs."

Corporate SA to catalyse change for the better

In his closing address, Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman encouraged corporate South Africa to contribute to rebuilding the country as a moral and social duty. "It doesn't matter how it looks. What matters is the difference it makes to the lives of people in this country. Forget the marketing, do what is right.

He praised the change he has seen in business since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when corporates set aside publicity and financial interests to help South Africans in need in every way possible. "When you've got that kind of support, that kind of humanity, you can't fail as a country. We need that spirituality. We need that compassion. We need that care. Yes, make money, but in making the money understand there's a share for those who don't have. The enrichment of the soul comes from giving help to others quietly in a dignified way."

He identified the key areas of intervention needed, urging companies to direct their resources to addressing health, education, water and hunger. Sooliman made special mention of the pressing need for more psychological intervention, catch-up surgery support and the capacitation of medical registrars and teachers, particularly special-needs teachers.

"We need to build this country together. The government can't do it alone. We've got to solve the problem now. We have to make the difference. Corporates, individuals in our own capacity, family, friends, let's do it ourselves, together. This is a great country. Make it greater, standing together."