Appalling. That is the term used to describe health conditions in the informal settlements surrounding certain South African mining company operations in southern Africa. When I read the news report in Business Day, it struck me like a blow in the solar plexus. Of all countries, South Africa should be the most sensitive in its dealings with the rest of Africa because we are widely regarded as a moral beacon on the continent. Or so I thought. Based on my own experience of African fraternity and mutual respect wherever I have found myself on the continent, it comes as a shock to realise that other South Africans take a very different line when they cross our borders in search of profits. If this attitude hearkens back to the brutal exploitation of the apartheid era, we still have much to learn about building better relationships with our fellow human beings.
The report in question was from a weighty 2010 survey of companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, commissioned by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).1 As the report notes, there is an expectation that companies from a country such as South Africa, with its human rights-based constitution, will take care of the environment and invest in social programmes when operating in Africa, particularly in fragile states where regulation is weak.
In recent times, attention and pressure has been mostly put on Chinese companies to adhere to best standard business investment in the extractive industries; very little pressure has been put on other players (including South Africa). Chinese companies have been criticised for their poor environmental standards and human rights record. However, studies by South African civil society organisations show that South African companies do not have a good record of corporate social responsibility and environmental protection.2
Considering the South African government’s commitment to the African Renaissance, adds the report, its companies must expect to be held to higher standards than Western and Chinese companies.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is everybody’s business. We should all care about it. It is about a collective human commitment to sustainable progress. Leaders and followers must jointly consider themselves cooperatively involved in the private sector’s bid to build a better world. If they stand on the sidelines, or worse, actively pursue destructive ends, the world is worse off and it would be better if they had not engaged in business at all. This is not high-mindedness: it is a realistic response to the plight of large sections of humanity living with depleted resources today.
Our world is already despoiled by generations of thoughtless plunder. I am reminded of the big-game hunters who came to Africa and thoughtlessly massacred the wildlife on a monumental scale – one proudly claimed to have slaughtered more than 1000 elephants3 – simply because they were there. The colonial conquest of far-flung lands was prompted by a mindset that proclaimed the conqueror had every right to ransack nature and enslave peoples, all in the name of profits and a civilising mission. This mindset is far from dead. Today, we should be wary of firms that proclaim their social mission but have little substance to back it up. On the other hand, we can make it the business of each and every one of us to insist that companies make a real contribution to the communities surrounding them and to global wellbeing.
What are we to make of the evident gap between national ideals and performance on the ground? While the report gives due credit to some of the excellent programmes and activities of mining firms, the impression left is that a culture of rapacity has taken root. It is clear that numerous companies have seen an opportunity to move onto unprotected ground, as it were, exploiting local resources and peoples for all they are worth. This is against the background of a decline in mining value extraction from worked-out operations in South Africa itself. Corporate leadership is seriously at fault if it allows, and indeed encourages, raiding on Africa. The OSISA report quotes with approval a view of the ethical role that leadership ought to be playing:
The question, therefore, is no longer about corporate social responsibility . . . instead, it is a question of how far the modern CEO is willing to take a stand on the pivotal issues of the day by contributing thought leadership to supplement the setting of new standards in ethical, corporate citizenry. (Richard Calland, 2009)4
The report calls on the South African government to design guidelines for its companies investing outside its borders, especially in the area of environmental protection and human rights, or alternatively, simply embrace the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines. In his summing-up of the report, editor Roger Southall notes that ‘companies can never hope to reap the rewards of CSR unless they are trusted – and gaining trust is likely to demand time, effort and expense’. He suggests that expatriate managers often fail to understand (or don’t make the effort to understand) local social, economic and environmental conditions. They are focused on business results, not social need.
In short, CSR cannot be expected to work if it is regarded by local management as a costly nuisance. Its successful implementation really does require major commitment and sensitivity to local conditions. Only this will provide for a basis of trust . . .5
Southall concludes that as CSR is premised upon the notion of firms’ social accountability there is a need for proper monitoring and evaluation – very little of which is actually happening. Certainly, the mining companies did not welcome attempts by the researchers to assess the real impact of their glowingly reported programmes.6
Words and deeds
The ‘pivotal issue of thought leadership’ on ethics – as Richard Calland, Associate Professor of Public Law at the University of Cape Town, put it in the quotation above – is of central concern. Tying together words and deeds, what is professed and what is performed, is the moral duty of leadership. It is, in effect, the essence of good corporate citizenship. Companies should be proud of what they actually achieve with their CSR programmes and should welcome efforts to hold them socially accountable, not hide behind a screen of public relations puffery. Corporate citizenship reflects the firm’s collective commitment to what Aristotle conceived of as the good life (not the easy life, but the virtuous life). Leaders are the custodians of corporate ethics, and it is the ethics of the firm that connect rhetoric with reality.
Gratifyingly, there are examples of South African firms in Africa that demonstrate this principle better than most. Under the leadership of Phuthuma Nhleko, the MTN mobile communications group became the leading mobile operator in Africa, breaking into new markets while pioneering innovative product offerings to grow the business at home. Nhleko headed the corporation from 2002 and was due to step down finally in March 2011. His string of chairmanships in other major enterprises included Worldwide African Investment Holdings, a company he helped to found and launch, with interests in the petroleum, telecommunications and IT industries.
It is a mark of Nhleko’s leadership style that he is widely acknowledged as a business leader and yet has remained almost invisible as a personality in the public arena. His private life is his own. He wins respect through getting things done, not glossing over what is left undone. Though always affable with the media, and often pictured relaxed and smiling at conferences, he can be brusque and has kept his distance from feature writers and TV profilers. As a business leader, Nhleko has a no-nonsense attitude and a steely will – something the government of Benin state in Nigeria discovered when they tried to extract $52 million in bogus backdated fees to let MTN keep operating. Nhleko silenced the network for two months rather than give in. His brinkmanship paid off when President Thabo Mbeki persuaded the Nigerians to unwind their demands.7
The MTN Group today operates in 21 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In March 2009 it had 98.2 million subscribers across its operations from Afghanistan and Iran, through many countries in Africa including Sudan, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda, Zambia, and Swaziland. Notably, several of these countries are riven by warfare, but that has not stopped MTN from pursuing business and investing in the social welfare of the people on its doorsteps. The group took on global sponsorship of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, and gained exclusive mobile content rights for Africa and the Middle East. MTN’s social mission stretches far and wide. In 2009, for instance, the company signed a cost-sharing agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the State Planning Commission of Syria that will facilitate the establishment of the first cancer research centre in the country.8
Under Nhleko’s stewardship, MTN has vastly expanded its social engagement with communities by directly involving its own staff in CSR projects. In 2010, more than 15 000 MTN employees across operations in Africa and the Middle East participated in Y’ello Care activities (‘Y’ello’ being the brand slogan of MTN). In this initiative, every staff member was expected to volunteer during working hours to contribute in some way to community wellbeing. South African staff members volunteered at various facilities where people displaced by xenophobic violence have been accommodated, and also donated clothing and food.9
The people Nhleko notes as having had the most influence on his career are former Standard Bank CEO Jacko Maree and the MD of Old Mutual SA, Roddy Sparks. Nhleko has come a long way since qualifying as a civil engineer in Ohio, in the United States, and working as a trainee for that state’s Department of Transportation. Nhleko – whose second name is Freedom – returned to South Africa in the transition years when apartheid was evidently on its way out but the new dispensation had not yet been born. He took up the position of project engineer for the Urban Foundation and was soon recognised for his financial and leadership skills. He helped to cement alliances between responsible business and the broad democratic groupings that were preparing the ground for the new South Africa. As the country turned the corner to democracy, he became a senior executive of the Standard Corporate and Merchant Bank corporate finance team – a mainstream business role – but also launched into a number of black empowerment initiatives. Nhleko has also ensured that several MTN employees and others showing leadership potential have been able to participate in the African Leadership Programme initiated by the Nepad Business Foundation. Qualities of mindfulness, optimism and thoroughgoing pragmatism have marked out his career. If this is what the new man of Ubuntu has to offer Africa and the world, the twenty-first century could indeed be the African century: we need many more Nhlekos.
The task I have set myself in this chapter is to argue that, from an African humanist perspective, CSR is bounded by profitability but has ethics at its core. By this I mean that CSR cannot happen if a company is failing to make ends meet as an enterprise in the marketplace, but the motive for undertaking corporate social programmes is not primarily selfish and money-orientated. It is selfless and people-orientated – and the catalyst is attuned leadership. Caring is the core of CSR, inwardly felt and outwardly expressed. Caring infuses the corporate spirit with an appreciation for human rights, human dignity and human development. These are issues of governance where the firm’s policies and procedures impinge directly on the lives of employees, their families and their communities. The leadership that provides direction for a firm and, hopefully, ensures its profitability, is also the leadership that sees its role as societal. Within a relational management context, it is the firm’s duty to bring work and life into balance, thus serving ends outside of itself.