Redefining corporate social investment in South Africa

Braai Day “Braai Day was conceived by the retail industry to maximise profits from the traditional South African braai,” writes Wendy Tlou. “I applaud the retail industry for having had the insight to monetise something that is a source of common enjoyment for the vast majority of South Africans.” (Image: Pieter van Marion)


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Wendy Tlou

South Africa’s journey to democracy manifests itself in some interesting forms of expression. As most of our national holidays mean different things to different people, we have not yet reached the point where we have a particular form of celebration that means the same thing to everyone. But then again, I am not sure whether we would want a single form of celebration in our country. Our various forms of expression ought to be seen as a celebration of our cultural diversity.

The answer to forging a new and common South African identity is not about us glossing over what our national holidays mean to different groups of people in our country. It will come from each of us acknowledging exactly what the national holidays invoke for each of us while realising that this is what South Africa is about. The past will never mean the same thing to us all, but in our collective “South Africanness”, in this democratic experiment in which we are all engaged, we can begin to look at the present and future together. This is part of our “living democracy” – a term recently coined by the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa.

While culture, heritage and expressions of democracy are all more grey than black and white, one thing that has the same colour is money. Money is a currency that is understood and appreciated by corporations and individuals alike. I wonder about the responsibility and role of corporate entities that monetise national holidays. Are they playing their part in contributing positively and meaningfully to building a shared understanding and meaning of those holidays?

Let us look at the recent Braai Day, which coincides with National Heritage Day. Braai Day was conceived by the retail industry to maximise profits from the traditional South African braai. The concept of cooking food over an open fire is something that is common to most of us in this country. We all know how food cooked over an open fire tastes – be it meat, bread, vegetables or stews. I’m sure we all have images of that in our minds right now. I applaud the retail industry for having had the insight to monetise something that is a source of common enjoyment for the vast majority of South Africans.

However, are corporate entities giving back to communities to enable sustainable growth and development, especially from campaigns like Braai Day? Many will say there are corporate social responsibility projects and that corporate organisations are also trying to comply with the King 3 report, which encourages greater social investment as part of sustainable stakeholder relations management. However, are these projects enough to contribute meaningfully to the development of communities and active citizenship?

Corporate entities implement innovative approaches to exploiting national days – also because they are all public holidays – to maximise their sales and profit. But do their investments in social responsibility projects match their sales and profit and do they actually participate in the broader call for active citizenship to make this country what we would like it to be?

One of the leading theorists on competitive advantage, Michael Porter, has co-written a paper entitled the Competitive Advantage of Corporate Philanthropy, which looks at the concept of strategic philanthropy. The paper observes that what passes for strategic philanthropy “is not truly strategic, and often it isn’t even particularly effective as philanthropy, since increasingly philanthropy is used as a form of public relations or advertising, promoting a company’s image or brand through cause-related marketing”.

While this may seem quite cynical, it may be quite telling, since corporate entities have as their main objective the maximisation of their profits and increasing their market share. Porter, however, goes on to say that there is a way of making social investments more strategic: “Corporations can use their charitable efforts to improve their competitive context, the quality of the business environment in the location or locations where they operate.”

This should become the focus of South African corporate social investment (CSI) – contributing to communities to improve the quality of the surroundings in which their operations reside through job creation and other forms of social investment such as education initiatives, daycare, after-school programmes for minors and nutritional programmes. In addition, what role do corporate entities play in encouraging active citizenship and the convergence around building a common South African identity?

Strong brands command attention, elicit desire from consumers and motivate aspirations. How do corporate entities use this power for the greater good of building the South African brand and simultaneously ensure their own success in this community? Is it utopian, achievable or a corporate imperative for the sustainability of their communities and their own commercial interests?

At the June 2014 Making CSI Matter Conference, a presentation by Cathy Duff showed that nonprofit organisations (NPOs) receive the bulk, almost 20%, of their funding from corporate entities and certainly NPOs have received increased funding over the years. The questions that must be asked are, what proportion of profits from corporate entities is contributed to CSI activities, in-house or NPO-run? How do these programmes contribute to the development of communities? Are we moving communities further up the development trajectory? Are corporations playing their part to ensure that our citizens – our national human capital – are nourished, taught skills and educated to the extent that they can be in total control of their destinies? Are corporate entities ensuring their own survival through their investment in the development of our national human capital?

Research also shows that the best way to ensure social cohesion is to reduce the inequality between the haves and the have-nots. Investing in the sustainable development of our human capital and therefore strengthening communities will inevitably see inequalities decrease. But the only way to increase durable equality is through the development of people, not merely through the increase in their income levels.

Corporate entities should have another look at their relationship with the communities with which they interact. We need to redefine the concept of corporate social responsibility and what it means to the collective national development and active citizenship we so dearly desire. I do know for sure that we cannot commodify and retail our way to social cohesion, but we can by get there by building a common understanding and meaning of national holidays and thus a common South Africanness.

• Wendy Tlou is the chief marketing officer of Brand South Africa. This article was originally published in Business Day.