Do Black Lives Matter to Corporate Social Responsibility South Africa?

Recently, while participating in a food drop-off project run by one of our big corporates, I was introduced like this, ‘Meet Simphiwe, our industry’s greatest critic.’ Wow! I did not know that this is what I was. It startled me, I must be honest.

So I am a critic. If I am, it is perhaps because I don’t subscribe to giving without thinking.  I have attended hundreds of press junkets and giving events, and trust me, if you had seen half the things I’ve seen, you would speak out, too.  I am a critic only because I am committed to the CSI industry and am determined to see it developed, deepened, expanded, professionalised and recognised.

CSI is an industry. I am pretty sure some don’t even recognise this. It operates through a complex value chain involving many role-players. It has the potential to hugely affect our economic landscape, not just through the NGO or social enterprise giving pipeline, but also through the small businesses that CSI departments and managers choose to work with – or choose to ignore. 

They choose to ignore many small businesses because – in my view – they are more concerned with their career-enhancing courses, the impression they’re making on the board and their personal estates than they are about CSI. The true essence of CSI, that is – which is the development of our country.

Am I being harsh? Perhaps I am. But let me ask you a question: Can you name one large black consultancy, NGO or CSI finance management company, born in the last 27 years,  that stands at the level of the big established companies, many born in the same period? Probably not. Black-owned CSI-related companies exist, but they are small and – I dare to state – kept small by our white and black partners in the big corporates who apparently have a hard time trusting a business run by a black person.

You know what I am talking about, dear reader. No-one will acknowledge it, because in our heart of hearts, none of us believes we are racist. And maybe you’re not. You love all people, try to treat everyone fairly, understand that there are differences in culture, etc. At a personal level, you really do not feel you look at the world through a race-based lens.

Fair enough. But there is such a thing as systemic racism, institutional racism, a racism that operates at such a subtle level that blacks and whites alike have absorbed it.

You think you aren’t, but you probably are
No one thinks they’re a racist, but racism in one of those mental blind spots we all have. Physically, every human eye has its blind spot – that small area at the back of the eye which is unable to register light, and causes blindness in that one tiny area.

Racism is our mental blind spot.

A set of questions woke me up to my own personal blind spots. If I asked you whether you were a ‘bad’ person, you would surely say, ‘No, I am good person.’ Yet if I asked how many lies you had told in the last week – even small, so-called white lies – I am pretty sure you’d acknowledge that there has been a lie or two.

And what about taking things that are not yours? Have you ever taken anything, no matter how small, that you did not pay for and that was not intentionally given to you? Most will admit that there have been a few such items in the course of our lives.

So, most of us fit the description of a liar and a thief. We’re not quite as good as we think we are. We delude ourselves about our racism in the same way.  I have had to admit that, indeed, I carry my own, unrecognised institutional racism – that I live with, in the words of author and former Ugandan Minister of Education, Ata Abi Adoi, my own personal indoctrination.

Turned down for a white company

A recent experience brought institutional racism to the fore. I submitted a proposal to a large company for R100 000 and was turned down. Two months later a ‘white’ company submits a very similar proposal (and I happen to know it was almost identical) for half a million rand and gets accepted.  I was told I was too expensive and that they wanted to give me an opportunity, but only if I lowered my price.

Typical of what happens to the black-owned business. ‘We want to support you, but don’t expect us to pay what we regularly pay the big established companies.’ You accept, because you must, and then they take 60 to 90 days to pay the already reduced amount, rendering your business in a constant state of just surviving.

Managers hold the power
The CSI industry is a massive one, though few acknowledge it. CSI managers hold the power to make or break companies who feed into their value chain. It’s not all about who you donate to; it’s who you commission to perform the intermediate tasks; the transport, the venues, the sound systems, the website design, the marketing – right up to the managing of your CSI budget.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I take a long-term view of the industry and my place in it.  Have you ever thought where you will be in 20 years’ time  – in 2040?  I have. I see at least one black company – preferably several – that stands shoulder to shoulder with the big names, and who got where they are because of my help. I want to be the company that lifts others up. I want to see black-run companies regularly taking up the opportunities that I have been refused from 2009 to today.

I was refused these opportunities by both black and white businesses in CSI.

This is why I say, paraphrasing Reverend Al Sharp in the US: Remove the knee from my business, from my idea, from my opportunity. Remove the knee!

Do black lives matter in CSI South Africa – or, more specifically do black businesses matter? One could say they come down to the same thing.

A great revealer
Covid-19 has been a great teacher and revealer. One thing it has revealed is that our big corporates are limiting themselves in the programmes they fund – almost always education and health and, lately, food security and shelter.  Where is the long-term change of the economic landscape? Our society is as unequal as ever. We need a deeper, more far-reaching approach, one that supports and even nurtures the small businesses. This support has to be more than window dressing – in many cases, more than simply hiring a small black-owned business for a specific project.

Small businesses come in many different stages of maturity – some are ready to be challenged with the big projects, and some need a lot more. They need help with registering, help with planning and development, help with marketing, help with training.  Corporates need to recognise the level the small black business is at when they embark on a project with them.

Have you ever considered putting aside, say, 30% of your CSI budget, and letting your board know, ‘This is risk money. For one year, this is the money we’ll plough into black-owned businesses, whether in payment for services rendered, or in intensive development and nurturing of the fledgling black business’? Taking a risk like this may push you out of your comfort zone, but where does sitting in our comfort zone ever get us?

Some ‘get it’, some don’t
I happen to work with a CSI manager of one our biggest and oldest companies who ‘gets it’. She understands that CSI is far more than a collection of individuals with budgets to spend. To her – and there are others, I concede – CSI is an industry with many levels and many role-players, and not all of them are NGOs. She is prepared to take a risk on a small business, and moreover, she is willing to admit what she does not know. A pretty rare quality.

In an industry as developing as CSI, we all have to admit that we don’t always know the right route to take, but that by consulting with others who have been in the industry longer, one can learn a lot and contribute to building the industry. Which is what we are all still doing. But to truly develop and build an industry, one has to stick one’s neck out, take a risk, and admit to one’s own institutionalised racism, where it exists. And in my experience, it’s virtually impossible to see it if you’re in it.

In closing: I was chatting about this with a CSI manager friend of mine whom I’ve known since our early 20s.  We’re in our 40s now.  I said, ‘Sam, you know what I am talking about,’ to which he responded, ‘To tell you the truth, when I vetted NGO applications at a bank, I applied more stringent measures to black NGOs than I did to white NGOs.’

When the NGO was black, he said, he asked for address, evidence of bank accounts, who was benefitting, and copies of latest reports and financial statements. Yet for a white NGO he asked for the bare minimum.

As harsh as this will sound, my friend was a victim of institutionalised racism, and a perpetrator of it. He thought the way the institution set him up to think, and he inflicted it on the rest of us.

So yes, I’m being the critic, but I’m prepared to crit. myself in this, too. I am looking at ways that I may have had lower expectations of small black businesses, or perhaps been impatient with a certain standard of service delivery while ignoring the resource constraints they worked under. I’m looking at my own part in perpetuating institutionalised racism, one of the hardest things to spot. In my view, this is something that we all need to do if we really want to see our industry, economy and people thrive – as opposed to merely survive. 

Corporate Social Responsibility News (CSRNEWS) is South Africa’s leading Corporate Social Responsibility news, media and publishing firm. We create content on social responsibility, helping government, corporates, consultants, NPOs and NGOs to reach their target markets through appropriate, targeted development news.

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