Power, Privilege And Paupers Positions – Why Do Some CSI Managers In South Africa Hold No Power?

How many times have you sat with a CSI Manager and they promised you the world and when it was time to deliver. The goal post kept on changing? Have you ever considered what the real problem could be?

Several years ago, when I first began working in CSI for a large parastatal through an agency, I learned that there was a lot of power in my privileged position.  I come from a world were BEE fronting was common.  It was the early 2000s, and I worked alongside the creators of black economic empowerment – people like Jeffrey Ndumo, who was tasked with investigating best practice in BEE. At that time, a lucky few enjoyed privilege, but power remained with the old guard.

Nonetheless, I worked hard and found myself to the position of programme manager (CSI manager type) and CSI happen to be the fluid. I was fortunate in having an incredible boss, who allowed me to do all that I needed to execute my vision.  And because he said, ‘Go for it!’ without disturbing the flow of creativity, the job was an amazing experience.  I dare say this is where I learned to be brutal in my work – to reject ideas, practices and materials that were sub-standard and to insist on things being done properly. Of course, I was still answerable mainly to my boss and board. My boss would simply look over my status report before each board meeting, correct a few grammar errors and say, ‘Go ahead. Present!’

So I met regularly with the board, comprising about 20 executives, and my confidence grew in leaps and bounds. I was running multiple projects and managing millions, so the pressure was constant. But it was a wonderful experience of having both privilege and power; a power afforded me by my boss, who helped me see that privilege without power is empty. What’s the use of earning a great salary if you end up feeling like a painted doll, unable to make decisions that will get things moving?

I remember a perfect example. My boss and a particular supplier knew each other well, enjoying frequent lunches and dinners together.  One day, I did not like a certain product this service provider delivered.  I wanted something different.  The service provider insisted that what he supplied was correct, and spoke to my boss privately.  I remember my team, most of whom had been with the company longer than I had, saying to me, ‘You said no to Bob! You’re in trouble now.’

I was nervous over the weekend that preceded the Monday morning board meeting, when I would have to confront the issue with my boss. During the meeting, I made my presentation, and when I came to the issue with Bob, my boss said, ‘Simphiwe, what you want is what goes.  I had lunch with Bob this weekend and I told him that you are the boss of this project, and they have to listen to you.’

What a turn-around! Here was a boss who knew how to delegate power and leave it with me – not yank it back when it clashed with his personal biases and preferences. Again, I was experiencing how much one can achieve when privilege is married to power – at least sufficient power to execute one’s well-considered vision.

Eventually, I left that job to start Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa, the company I run today. I had grown through freedom to execute my vision, and had developed a clear sense of what I wanted to do and how I wished to do it. This to me was power, privilege and perfect position. 

I often look at some of the so-called decision-makers in CSI today and wonder if they have even half the power I enjoyed then.  They ought to have more, not less, since this is ten-odd years later and things have moved on.

Instead, I find CSI managers and their teams cowed and cramped and curtailed – by what? I don’t know. They seem unable or unwilling to make a single decision of importance. I mean, back then, I had access to a R15 million budget for CSI and could approve decisions of up to 1.5 million; today I find CSI managers in so-called command of even higher budgets who battle to approve a mere R50 thousand programme.  If anything has changed, I would say it has moved backward!

Last year, we worked hard, like many small enterprises battling to get things done during the pandemic. My team and I worked incredibly hard to stay afloat, and afloat we stayed.  One or two client companies even asked us where we needed help. I have to thank them for their faith in us, and for continuing to partner with us to this day. 

In the midst of the pandemic I was approached by a large parastal company to revamped their CSI visibility, strategy and thought leadership positioning and to implement it through our channels. We did the work, delivering a range of products with which the client seemed delighted. But when the time came for payment, the story changed. Repeated requests for payment were met with obfuscation, which all seemed to boil down to the person in charge being unable to get the money released. The invoice was sent in May 2020; the client tells me it was approved in September (four months after submission!) and yet to this day (May 2021) we have not been paid.

I have to ask myself, where is the power that accompanies the privilege and the position?  Are CSI managers just approvers, but their approval means little? Are they too scared to confront their finance departments, marketing departments or boards, in this day and age, twenty-six years into democracy?  In my days, when an NGO or supplier was not paid and the phoned to enquire. I simply went to finance department asked what the issue was – got the answer and went back to the NGO or supplier and tell them when they can expect payment. And that was that. Today however, why does it prove so difficult to get anything done with people who command high salaries?

Sometimes it seems we live in an era where people at all levels just fear making decisions and carrying them out.

So here are my remedies. CSI divisions need to have their own CSI visibility budgets – that portion of the overall CSI budget that they can control without board approval for every item – that will allow them to share their vision and their best practice scenarios. Boards must be convinced of the necessity of such a budget, and give CSI managers the freedom to use it.

Why? Because CSI is not only about doing good. It is also about letting the world know what you’re doing and how, so that others can learn. In this way, a corporate community of best practice can be developed. What is the use of a great CSI record that comes across like a dog’s breakfast, because half the captains of industry leave their best practice on their desktops – locked in dull, word-document reports that no one reads? CSI has to be out there, visible, beautifully presented and alive, so that all can learn and the general climate of corporate social responsibility is enhanced. This is how best practice is normalised.   

This whole saga of having privilege but being in a pauper’s position when it comes to power could be a direct result of having old and out-of-touch boards – which I believe we need to look at. It may also have to do with CSI managers who lack the experience and confidence to re-examine how they operate, and to challenge their own and their board’s assumptions.

What would an ideal scenario of CSI power and privilege look like in practice?  To me, it would look a lot more like my job ten years ago. CSI managers would have the freedom to make decisions and execute them, without being held back by boards who don’t understand the realities of CSI today. CSI managers would grow in confidence, and the whole CSI landscape would change, with CSI incorporating real economic empowerment of the entrepreneurs who provide CSI services to the large corporates. A win-win situation for all.

So, to the CSI manager reading this: How much power accompanies your current position of privilege?  Are you free to make your own decisions, or do you hold the pauper’s position when it comes to power?

Mtetwa Simphiwe
Simphiwe Mtetwa is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief for Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa.

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