CFO Awards 2018: A wake-up call for corporate South Africa to play its part

The CFO Awards 2018 panel discussion at Constitutional Hill challenged business leaders to change their mindsets around social regeneration.

The 2018 CFO Awards on 10 May kicked off with a thought-provoking master class on South Africa’s apartheid legacy and how business can do more to create a better society. The sheer aura of Constitutional Hill made it a fitting venue for such a discussion, which took place under the open sky. CFO South Africa MD Graham Fehrsen moderated the panel, which comprised Thomson Reuters Africa MD Sneha Shah, ZAR X CEO Etienne Nel, renowned speaker and My Growth Fund CEO Vusi Thembekwayo and Judge Dennis Davis.

Judge Dennis Davis said:

“It is quite fitting that we are here today because the idea of social justice is best captured in our constitution which, in its essence, seeks to create a society based on dignity, equality and freedom for all. Given our history as a nation, the issue of physical freedom is vitally important, but those that drafted the constitution understood that an individual cannot have dignity, nor can they truly achieve physical freedom, without having some sense of substantive equality.”

He said social justice was about ‘capacitating’ all South Africans to be able to enjoy their freedom and to have their dignity respected. It meant correcting the legacy of apartheid, which was an entire framework designed to exclude the vast majority of black South Africans from enjoying the fundamental fruits of society.


 
He said: “They didn't get a decent education, they didn't get decent healthcare, they didn't get infrastructure. They got nothing. Today, we have a system where, after seven years of education, black children cannot read for meaning. And we read about cases where children have died after falling into pit toilets.”

While much of the failure to improve conditions can be laid at the doorstep of corruption and the post-apartheid government, the Judge said that the main cause was that white people were let off the hook too easily in 1994 after Mandela became president. His message of unity created a sense of impunity or relief among white people who absolved themselves of any responsibility to right the wrongs of the previous regime.

"White people thought, 'Oh good, we've got apartheid off our back because Mr Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and we won the Rugby world cup… and we all sang Kumbaya. But the legacy of apartheid lived on."

What can business do?
Twenty-four years after democracy, despite government policies and incentives around transformation, the majority of South Africans are still poor, with little hope of a prosperous future.
 
Vusi said the only way this will change is if leaders in corporate South Africa adjust their collective mindset. At the moment, too many people and organisations are doing what is right because they are either rewarded for doing so or penalised for not doing so.

He said:

“I have been in meetings where there was a rush to accelerate supplier development initiatives because it was important that the expenditure is reflected in the upcoming financial reports. That’s the kind of mindset that exists.”

Etienne agreed that such box-ticking exercises are the wrong approach to restorative justice. Instead, he urged everyone to take individual responsibility and play whatever role they can to make a meaningful contribution.
 
Judge Davis added: “Having been the chairperson of the Tax Commission for the past four years, I have to be seriously persuaded that corporate South Africa has come to the party.” By way of an example, he asked the guests for a show of hands from anybody who had read the Ruggie report from the United Nations, which provides a set of guiding principles for CSR. Nobody had read it.
 
Find a more meaningful purpose than shareholder value

Sneha was more optimistic. She said she believed there was a sense within corporate South Africa to want to be a force for good but that leaders felt it was an ideal that, practically, made for an insurmountable task. And, because it is too daunting to focus on as a business imperative, they compartmentalise it as a CSI imperative.

She said:

“But that doesn’t have to be the case. The reality is that your core business can do good, no matter what sector you're in. A good example is Amazon, which is known for making it possible for consumers to buy anything from anywhere on the planet, but they are also one the biggest enablers of small businesses in the US."



Ultimately, business leaders can make a meaningful contribution to society by having a purpose that all stakeholders can get behind. To do that, she said leadership has to model the goal that the organisation is aiming for, and that goal cannot just be about maximising shareholder value. It has to be about stakeholders and everyone that you serve. “Our mission is to empower Africa's success. It sounds very big and broad but it gives everyone in our organisation a purpose and allows them to understand the reason behind everything we do,” she said.  
 
She added that the time was coming when investors would no longer put up with companies that do not have a purpose beyond profit. “We do a lot of research around this and we're seeing an increasing amount of global investors say they don't want to be associated with companies at risk of facing a scandal of some sort," she said. "Having a purpose that is meaningful is no longer something that is just nice to have. It's going to affect your ability to attract investors just as it is already affecting your ability to attract talent. Millennials care about the kind of world they want to leave behind for their children, so they're not going to work in organisations that don't share that ideal.”