There are two components that impact on civil society’s relationship with South African business, mainly through CSI operations. These are the BEE codes and the capacity to measure delivery and impact. Business is not generally altruistic, although there are some key exceptions to the rule. I am not opposed to the for-profit sector: it is critical to the development of our economy, it provides work and produces the products we need. However, in terms of values, the corporate sector is extractive by nature: it will extract what it can from its employees, its customers, its suppliers etc. The non-profit sector is about giving back to society.

Are there therefore real opportunities for partnership between civil society and business? In many instances there will be common ground in terms of what people are trying to achieve, although they might approach the problem from different angles. For example, an organisation might be working with matriculants to prepare them for university. This could be supported by a company as it desperately needs good, talented, qualified graduates and it understands that the seed bed of such future employees (our school system) is currently barely functioning and that the add-on provided by educational NGOs has value.   There are a range of opportunities for corporates and civil society organisations to partner, but there has to be respect for different values and agendas.

The BEE Codes have also had an impact on such partnerships. Whilst there might have been some level of altruism previously, this has been wiped out on a significant scale by the need to tick boxes to gain BEE points. There are some companies that no longer have any values, but only request proposals from organisations that can prove the 75% black beneficiary targets. So, for example, you might find a company supporting a pro-abortion organisation and an anti-abortion organisation, both of which have 75% black beneficiaries, but with totally divergent values.   Whilst the imperative to transform our society is totally understood, the reality of this requirement has had an impact on the interface between civil society and the corporate sector in terms of a common value base.

The issue of social return on investment has also created confusion. Although it is important and correct for organisations to report on how funds were spent, whether they delivered on their programmes and what the impact of the programmes were, there is the utopian idea that somehow business practice can save the world.   In response, the following quote from Michael Edwards in his book “Small Change” is appropriate:
“Expecting price competition, the profit motive, short-term deliverables, and supply-chain control to bring about a world of compassion and solidarity is, to say the least, a little strange. You wouldn’t use a typewriter to plough a field or a tractor to write a book, so why use markets where different principles apply?”

Social change is complex and messy, organisations need to navigate society, social structures, interest groups and differing agendas in order to achieve consensus. The process alone can take months or years, before any actual work takes place. When Jonathan Schrire was encouraged to build a school in Vrygrond, a hugely disadvantaged area in Cape Town, two members of his committee were killed before the school was built. It took enormous courage and persistence to deliver and complete this incredibly successful project. How does one measure this? Does this process not matter in terms of return on investment, but only that the school was built, how many pupils attend and what their final matric results are?

According to James Taylor of the Community Development Resource Agency, we have approached developmental work in a linear, mechanistic and instrumental way. This is effective in resolving simple and even complicated problems where there is a direct and predictable cause and effect relationship between input, output and outcome. But we are starting to understand that this framework could thwart our capacity to address the multifaceted, complicated systemic problems that we face.


Extracted from: The Civil Society Landscape by Shelagh Gastrow, 6th annual ‘Making CSI Matter’ Conference, Johannesburg, May 2013.