CSR in South Africa: Much more than Compensation

Cape Town > In Europe there is so much awareness towards South Africa, changes in the South African government, ethnical conflicts and the coming World Cup. How do enterprises there take over social responsibility? CSR NEWS spoke with Sandra Claassen, co-owner of the agency INCHARGE African Projects for unique CSR-Strategies.

CSR NEWS: Is there any debate within South Africa itself about the Corporate Social Responsibility of business?

Sandra Claassen: Yes, in fact the debate is quite intense. But due to the economic and political isolation during the apartheid era, a region-specific understanding of CSR has developed, which to the observer can be seen as a form of “compensation”. Hence, South African businesses have concentrated on philanthropic involvement, also already under apartheid. Locally, CSR is known as Corporate Social Investment (CSI). Since the end of apartheid policies, businesses have been faced with the additional issue of “Black Economic Empowerment” (BEE) – a programme initiated by government aimed at eradicating the economic and social disadvantages of the black and coloured communities which stem from the apartheid era.

The strategic, comprehensive approach of CSR in the form in which it is being increasingly implemented in Germany, has only recently been observed in South Africa. The debate is driven by economic concerns, adherence to international guidelines and the need to remain competitive. Woolworths, for example, during April 2007 committed to a five-year plan for the development of sustainable management resources. The “Good Business Journey”, in addition to social development, promises increased environmental awareness and measures around the topic of global warming and climate change.

CSR NEWS: We know that German businesses are getting involved in the AIDS issue in South Africa. Which other issues/ challenges are important for socially responsible businesses?

Sandra Claassen: Seen against the backdrop of an official figure of 12 % for the AIDS infection rate in South Africa, that is indeed one of the most pressing problems. Sustainable involvement continues to be vitally important. In the search for the causes, other central issues emerge: lack of education and the high rate of unemployment of around 40 %. Everyone, from young children right through to adults, can therefore assist education projects to pass on knowledge, self-confidence and the necessary life skills to help people to uplift themselves out of poverty. Creativity knows no bounds here: nursery schools with qualified care-givers and a healthy feeding scheme, sport or music and dance projects which get children off the streets, or adult education projects aimed at job creation are but a few examples. It goes without saying that issues such as environmental and species conservation, alternative energy sources and culture are important. A country like South Africa has such a great need for support that all businesses are able to find a challenge to suit their own particular philosophy and thus provide sustainable assistance.

CSR NEWS: Is there a political debate about CSR in South Africa? Are there CSR networks?

Sandra Claassen: The political debate is centred around the topic of “Black Economic Empowerment” (BEE). The aim is to integrate previously disadvantaged Black entrepreneurs more strongly into private enterprise by means of transfer of ownership, further education programmes focused on management and control functions, and facilitation of business start-ups. Guidelines for CSI have also been laid down as part of BEE, and such projects have experienced strong growth since their inception. These are all issues which fall under the general CSR umbrella, but are nevertheless very specifically geared towards South Africa. Organisations, scientific research institutes and businesses have set up exemplary initiatives such as the African Institute for Corporate Citizenship or the South African Business Coalition on HIV and AIDS. They drive the international debate on CSR and advocate a closer link between BEE and CSR. The economy is increasingly demanding an international focus and has started to get actively involved in international forums such as ISO 26000.

CSR NEWS: How active is South African civil society? Which role-players in civil society devote themselves to CSR issues or CSR-related issues?

Sandra Claassen: The South African populace is socially very aware and involved. It is remarkable how fast individual role-players, organizations and the media call for relief measures, for example when heavy rains wash away the corrugated iron shack dwellings in the townships and the number of homeless increases. During the attacks in the townships against immigrants from neighbouring African states early this year, scores of South Africans responded immediately with “friendliness to foreigners” and collected blankets, clothing and food for the victims. It is precisely in extreme situations in South Africa that one is positively surprised by the rapid and practical aid. The main role-players in civil society are the NGOs and churches. It is estimated that there are approx. 100 000 organisations in South Africa alone. In comparison to other African countries civil society is markedly socially committed.

CSR NEWS: Which mistakes should a CSR-active business in South Africa avoid?

Sandra Claassen: The highest commandment for a project in Africa should be “help towards self-help”. A short-term financial injection and even material resources trickle away really quickly. What is important for success is the honest and respectful meeting with the foreign culture and its needs, the formulation of concepts which not only alleviate the effects, but also contribute to fighting the causes and long-term in situ mentoring and support. A Chinese proverb puts it in a nutshell: “Give a starving person a fish, and he will be fed once; teach him to fish and he will never starve again”. It is sad to see people in a withered garden, sitting next to a broken water pump, waiting day in and day out for the Europeans who a year before donated seeds and the pump to them.

However, the concept of “help towards self-help” not only helps the needy, as good CSR projects convert businesses’ abstract philosophies into tangible success stories and win-win situations. In the process, credible communication is not only beneficial to the image, but active the involvement of employees can create new energies, inspiration and unforgettable encounters. Reliable partners in the field can help to merge the knowledge from both cultures in a synergy-rich manner, avoid mistakes and to make use of the challenges of a developing country as a creative opportunity.

CSR NEWS: Could you tell us about some outstanding examples of CSR in South Africa?

Sandra Claassen: There are numerous German enterprises which help the people of South Africa honestly and effectively. These concerns have of course built up their own very big projects, whilst smaller businesses often tend to look for existing projects which are support-worthy. BMW is a good example of a company which thinks beyond its own corporate boundaries and establishes health centres and schools in the communities of its employees. These centres not only serve the ill, but also function as a social meeting-place where AIDS education is carried out. The curricula of the “SEED” schools (School Environmental Education Development) are characterised by environmental awareness. The cultivation of vegetables for their own needs makes an important contribution towards self-sufficiency and healthy nutrition, which is of paramount importance for HIV infected persons.

B. Braun Melsungen AG is a good example of a medium-sized company with a broad-based CSR commitment. Within the framework of its global initiative “B. Braun for Children”, the “Topsi” project in South Africa gives AIDS orphans a chance of a normal life by providing them with a home and education. In addition, this pharmaceutical company uses its own know-how to protect nursing staff and doctors from infection by needle-prick wounds. “Safety Devices” – products with a low-risk potential – as well as training and information programmes are intended to help to reduce the infection rate. Employees had a say already in the choice of the project and are so motivated that they organize their own initiatives, such as golf tournaments and exhibitions, in order to become privately involved in Topsi as well. This example demonstrates how valuable a company’s own know-how is, how broadly it can be put to use and how sustainability can be experienced first-hand at all levels of a business – a positive gain for everyone involved.

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  • Companies that have CSR are always encouraged to conduct businesses that are not destructive and unfair practices to the public, such as polluting the environment in order to and retain employees and customers.

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