Last week the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science held a two-day workshop on "Serious Social Investment" with respect to corporate social investment (CSI) in South Africa.
The workshop, the fifth of its kind, focused on "initiating new conversations around the vision for South Africa and the benefits and value propositions for all involved in the CSI sector." Clearly the organisers are calling for a clearer vision of the role of CSI in South Africa and how to differentiate "serious" from frivolous social investment.
This is an interesting question to ask because it begs the question of what constitutes social investment that is not considered serious.
South Africa's private sector spends an estimated R8 billion on CSI, but this pales in comparison to Government's R900 billion in revenue this year. Judging from the debate and presentations at the workshop, 'serious social investment' is understood as spending that complements or improves government plans.
The problem is, however, that if the qualifier of 'serious' social investment is what helps government do its job, how then does the private sector approach activities that critique or proffer alternatives to government policy?
What differentiates charity from a developmental or social justice approach is in essence the notion that the beneficiary has rights and a voice.
When wealthy patrons or their offspring try to help, too often they retain the right to tell the poor what is best for them. Charity in its essence, whether well meaning or not, presumes the donor knows best how to spend his or her resources. It is for this reason that so much philanthropy focuses for example on delivering goods or advice rather than directly helping the poor such as through cash transfers.
On the other hand, a developmental approach insists that beneficiaries themselves must drive the process because development is essentially their right.
A developmental approach sees beneficiaries as needing capacity or access to opportunities to participate in the economic and social systems that emanate from government policy.
Both a charity and developmental approach, however, rarely allow for critical engagement. A social justice approach for example, does not see beneficiaries.
From a social justice approach the poor are refugees from a structural and economic reality that locks them out. Where a social justice approach differs is that it questions the rules of the system because they are rigged.
Empowerment can only happen through rewriting the rules and not through giving charity to mitigate the problem or extending the reach of the existing system through a developmental approach or as CSI refers to it 'serious social investment'.
Not Serious Social Investment
Throughout the workshop, speakers and participants returned to the question of how CSI can mitigate the inherent abuses and inequalities that dominate South Africa's economic landscape.
The inexcusable and irreversible damage rendered on miners and their families in Marikana haunted the workshop, infiltrating group discussions and giving voice to the anxiety that there may not be sufficient good will or resources to ever make meaningful redress or deliver social justice.
Tshikululu, for example, reported on their survey of why businesses allocated resources to social investment. Tshikululu found that South Africa's business leaders seemed to genuinely recognise their obligation to invest in the community and that CSI was actually driven by a deep sense of the need to do right by the community in which business leaders are part of.
Clearly there is good will: by some estimates CSI spending is now approaching R8 billion a year, which is comparable to what South Africa receives from international donors (R12 billion in 2012).
But for all this good work, CSI is too often associated with short-term investments driven by the desire to be in the limelight or demonstrate some new innovative solution that will likely never be implemented but serves to demonstrate the superiority of the donor or inventor.
To be clear, 'not serious' social investment is not necessarily not good social investment. When a corporation allocates a portion of profits to scholarships or donates computers to a community centre, it is doing good, but this good is not contributing to better practices or policies.
When a donor supports the design of exciting but inappropriate new technology such as solar stoves or water pumps attached to kindergarten play areas, they are not doing damage per se but they are certainly not contributing meaningfully to development either.
South Africa's government collected R900 billion in tax revenue in 2013 meaning that the funds from donors, corporate or otherwise, do not have the reach to meaningfully reshape society.
Donor spending thus has little chance to make a sustainable difference unless it is targeted at or in partnership with government. Unless good practices and lessons learned can be translated into better policy and delivery, CSI is unlikely to be relevant to South Africa as a whole.
Serious Social Investment
Fortunately, brimming just below the surface, are excellent CSI practices that need to be much better documented and shared. Sizwe Nxasana, for example, reported on the work of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT).
NECT is supported by large commitments from the private sector currently disbursing 0.4% of corporate profits. NECT firmly understands that lasting solutions to public education in South Africa are only feasible in partnership with government.
For a start, NECT measures its own performance in the framework of South Africa's National Development Plan, which allows for lessons learned to directly speak to government policy.
NECT also partners with government and uses innovative solutions such as calling on the military to build bridges so children can get to school or working with correctional services so that prisoners help with cleaning and improving school facilities.
Most importantly, however, NECT clearly embraces partnerships with multiple actors; it has a stated policy of trying to break down silos in government but is also open to working with other actors such as the Young Communists League. Finally, NECT works within the existing political economy recognising full well that it needs to work with trade unions, opposition parties as well as critics, if it is to fund a meaningful solution.
And herein lies the lesson for South Africa, 'Serious Social Investment' recognises first and foremost that nobody has the solution but that together we can make a difference.
This means opening up the space to engage and critique public policy and practice because whether we like it or not, the reason we have policy challenges in this country is because our public institutions are not as effective as we need them to be.
Quite uniquely, the 'serious' aspects of CSI offer an increasingly rare insight that if South Africa is to truly reach its potential, it must embrace rather than resist new partnerships.
South Africa needs to guard against an inward looking approach to policy development. The world is constantly changing and nobody on their own has the solutions to South Africa's social and economic problems.
However, if we come together and leverage our respective skills and experience, government, international donors and corporate actors have a much better chance of addressing intractable problems. In this regard, the corporate sector would be well advised to invest in protecting and expanding the public space for policy engagement as well as in documenting and communicating its successes.
At the same time, civil society and NGOs need to be more vocal about the value of international and other donors in stimulating and supporting debate as well as encouraging critical engagement.
Dangerous Social Investment
One speaker adamantly insisted that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that because South Africa is becoming a 'middle income' country that it is now able to deliver on its own.
Participants were unabashed in acknowledging that the one in five South Africans that live below the poverty line, are often no better off than their equivalent in least developed countries.
While most agree about how serious a challenge South Africa faces, it is becoming increasingly clear that the way to approach this challenge is more and more often constrained by a political and ideological vision that is only prepared to consider tweaking the existing system. Big business and government by their very nature are an extension of the interests of a vested elite.
Insofar as the private sector is trying to define serious social investment as extending the reach of the state, it also works to crowd out alternative views and perspectives that threaten the existing rules of the game.
It is for this reason that both Government and the private sector are much more willing to talk about getting children into classrooms than transforming the migrant labour economy so that children can grow up with their parents.
Make no mistake, the better quality free rural education is, the less likely miners move with their families and the lower pressure on mines to pay a liveable wage.
As Ronnie Kasrils recently pointed out, it is nothing short of an embarrassment that twenty years after the end of apartheid, we still find it acceptable that miners live in dorm rooms like children in boarding school. Isn't it simply bizarre that it is considered acceptable that after decades of service, mines send their labourers home as old and often unhealthy men to live off a government pension and taxpayer funded health system?
In this regard, we should all be mindful of the potential threat to our democratic space and ability to discuss real alternatives to the way South Africa's economy is structured.
If we combine the growing influence of corporate social investors in a developmental model that simply extends government's existing policies, we may lose an important arena in which to discuss and critique the viability of policy itself.
Furthermore, when this complements South Africa's new found confidence on the global stage we see an almost purposeful plan by Government to erode relationships with and influence of international voices.
After all it is quite remarkable that we talk about Marikana without ever asking why we are not debating whether South Africa should replicate the norms and rights that European countries afford their miners.
It is no coincidence, then, that while the private sector seeks to define what constitutes 'serious' social investment, Zuma snubs the EU-Africa summit not because the EU slashed aid to South Africa by 75% but rather because Mrs. Mugabe is feeling slighted.
O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.
Read more articles by Alexander O'Riordan.