Last week I attended Tshikululu’s annual Serious Social Investment Conference, which was populated by business school people, CSI practitioners and civil society representatives. The theme was leadership. There we all were, comfortably fed and seated in the GIBS conference centre, while outside refugees and migrants were being hammered by our fellow citizens.
The question of xenophobia and violence and the role of business hardly punctuated the proceedings. We explored leadership, the role of CSI, the importance of voluntarism and how to popularise CSI within our businesses. There were some outstanding inputs – Brand Pretorius on leadership, Vincent Maphai on the role of business in developing policy and Isaac Shongwe on defining new roles and expectations of leaders. Shongwe, who had worked with Barlowrand, reminded us very briefly of the leading role business played in the transition to democracy and the National Peace Accord, yet business has so little role to play currently while it focuses on development rather then transformation.
South Africa is reaching a crisis point. We have a youth bulge and particularly lots of young men without any hope for a decent future. They are badly educated, often unemployable, have decreasing roles to play in families as husbands or fathers and therefore we sit on a tinderbox of frustration. At the same time, youth that have the opportunity to access a good education and proceed to university are frustrated by a type of paternalism and an inability by institutions to transform fast enough. Our society is therefore full of anti – anti-immigrants, anti-whiteness, anti-semitism and Islamophobia – we are angry with government, with the ruling party, we are angry with our president, we are angry with the trade union movement, we are angry at business for not playing a role, we are angry at teachers who go on strike, we are angry at Eskom for messing with our lives, we are angry with traditional leaders for their position on women and for using our taxes for comfortable lifestyles and on it goes. This is a tinderbox and it requires wise leadership to bring the various elements of our nation together rather than to be divisive. Can we find a way to deal with important issues that have to be raised, while building social cohesion? Protesting in the streets might make us feel better, but without a backstop we could all be in trouble and the mindless violence we have witnessed this week is a sign of such danger.
Going back to the early 1990s, after Mandela’s release and the unbanning of organisations, there were expectations that we were on the road to peace. However, what actually happened was a massive escalation of violence, threatening the prospect of negotiations towards a new democracy.
At about the same time a group of business leaders who supported a constructive transformation of the South Africa’s political economy came together and formed the Consultative Business Movement (CBM). The organisation believed that violence was destructive to the negotiation process, the economy and to people’s personal lives. The organisation recruited competent and committed young people to co-ordinate its programmes and they began to establish an interface between the business community and political structures. They built networks between business and various other key role players. The main purpose was to expose members of the business sector to different experiences, opinions and world views, to build credibility and personal relationships between the business community, political leaders and activists. More than 80 of South Africa’s white business leaders participated and provided the resources and funds required to achieve the aims and objectives of the organisation.
When it came to the issue of escalating violence during the negotiation period, the CBM and the SA Council of Churches jointly played a significant role in de-escalating the conflict. Through an extensive consultative process with all political groups, labour representatives and individuals, the CBM produced a memorandum on the violence, mainly focusing on what is now the Gauteng region. A low-key process continued with meetings with cabinet ministers, political entities across the ideological divide, the labour movement, civil society and others. During this time the CBM positioned itself as an important player to bring about our new democracy.
It was evident to all that a way had to be found to manage the high levels of violence and eventually all sectors came together to sign the National Peace Accord in September 1991. This Accord enabled the negotiators to work towards peace, a new constitution and elections for a new democracy by bringing together civil society, political interests, faith-based organisations and business to ensure that the violence was contained. Managed by the National Peace Secretariat, funded by government and other donors, the Accord set up a multi-layered structure. Most importantly, local peace committees, made up of various community and stakeholder representatives, were established throughout the country to promote reconciliation at the grassroots level, to provide for early warning systems, to use various methodologies to mediate in conflicts, to ensure compliance amongst signatories and to liaise with authorities and the police as required. About 15,000 people were trained as peace monitors, many of whom learned skills in conflict resolution, negotiation and running meetings. Essentially, there were peace champions in every neighbourhood, reporting systems and community buy-in. In addition, there were special criminal courts established at local level which enabled judicial throughput of violence related cases.
Yes, the system was not perfect, but it helped to manage and reduce the violence, changed attitudes and promoted peace.
Taking into account the key role of business in creating and supporting the National Peace Accord, where is business now? Is there anyone out there – captains of industry, business leaders, who can serve as a catalyst to reignite such a movement? Does business as a sector have any opinion on what is happening in South Africa, even when it affects its capacity to undertake business on the rest of the continent? The silence is unfathomable. Since 2008, surely any business strategist who has given serious thought to South African business expansion on the continent, must have had some clue that our treatment of migrants would explode in our faces. Was nobody connecting the dots? When I visited Ethiopia and Eritrea in the early 1990s, both had recently overthrown the tyrant, Mengistu. Their comments regarding the ANC were devastating – how it had supported Mengistu and blocked every attempt by their revolutionary movements to obtain international support. Memories are hard and long and they frankly despised the ANC. That has always remained fresh in my memory – how we choose to treat our neighbours will always have long-term repercussions.
Business has changed in South Africa. Business leaders are no longer all white and male. Yet, despite the changes that has seen many of the country’s top leadership move into business, there appears to be no voice and little action relating to our violent context. Are we silenced because our problems seem so massive that they could be unsolvable? Have we lost hope? Or are we merely “cowards”, a term Trevor Manuel used when discussing the role of business with Vincent Maphai many years back. As we sit on this tinderbox which government has shown it cannot manage alone, is it not the time to review what the National Peace Accord achieved and to re-engage with its concepts. Could business now, both black and white, create a new business movement to ensure that the whole sector adapts to the new requirements of South Africa whilst working in partnership with government and other stakeholders to manage our propensity to violence?