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A burning factory in the Sea Cow Lake area in Durban in this July 12 2021 file photo. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/DARREN STEWART
A burning factory in the Sea Cow Lake area in Durban in this July 12 2021 file photo. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/DARREN STEWART

In a straight-talking debate on building a cohesive, strong and equitable society in SA, Business Day, in association with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa, brought together leading figures in business, religion, academia and civil society. 

The online discussion was moderated by political analyst Nompumelelo Runji. It saw Bonang Mohale (chancellor of the University of the Free State, chair of the Bidvest Group Ltd and chair of SBV), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka (president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, Prof Jonathan Jansen (professor of education at Stellenbosch University and president of the Academy of Science of SA), and Business Day editor Lukanyo Mnyanda try to understand the barriers holding SA back from building a common vision of social cohesion.

The recent unrest that erupted in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are part of a worrisome wave of protests. Henning Suhr, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in SA, says this was a primary motivator to host the discussion with leading thought leaders, in an attempt to diagnose the underlying causes and find a path to resolution.

Moderator Nompumelelo Runji pointed out that the initial spark of the July unrest was as a result of a political impasse, but that “the effect was a social and economic crisis that destabilised communities and heightened tensions between different groups in our society”. The violent protests and lootings have become a central expression of frustration and disillusionment across the country.

With the broad assumption that poverty and inequality are the underlying causes of these tensions, Bonang Mohale commented on the role of business in closing the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

Mohale highlighted that business leaders who believe their role is solely to maximise shareholder returns are missing the mark in the 21st century. While the role of business first and foremost is to maintain survival and profitability, he believes in the need to “ensure that as business we deliver a notion of shared value”.

He says when business does well, society generally does well too. But, he says, “there’s a problem when your own employees cannot afford the goods and services that you provide”.

Sometimes the government tends to see us as a competitor ... instead of seeing us as partners
Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference president 

The media plays an important role in nation-building and developing a society people are proud of. Mnyanda stressed the relevance of the media as a watchdog for leadership accountability, uncovering corruption and informing society. “We cannot sort anything out well without first knowing what the problem is, and having honest discussions about it,” he says.

As a voice for the Christian community in SA, Bishop Sipuka discussed the three-fold approach of the church in engendering ethical leadership: a prophetic role, a formative role and an active role in eliminating poverty by encouraging people to work, teaching people skills and engaging in social welfare issues. “The only pity is that sometimes the government tends to see us as a competitor when we are only making a contribution, instead of seeing us as partners,” he says.

Jansen says “one of the best things we can do for both business but also for society as a whole is to give every child access to high-quality basic education”.

A failing is that there is too much energy focused on the matric exam, by which time hundreds of thousands of young people have dropped out of the system. “It's important to recognise we have a huge problem. It’s not a middle-class problem, it’s a problem of the working classes and the poor.”

This was the first in a three-part Business Day Dialogues series in association with Konrad Adenauer Foundation Stiftung and the Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa. The series will next focus on grass roots governance and accountability, and the alleviation of childhood hunger.

To re-watch the recorded discussion, click on the video below:

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