Global corporates could draw some lessons from SA’s constitution and legal framework when trying to address the inequalities highlighted in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

BLM protests across the globe have sparked a response from corporates, which understand that unless their voices are heard in support of the movement they will be drowned out by a growing wave of consumer activism on social media platforms. But while many global corporations have publicly denounced discrimination and made commitments to racial justice, they appear insincere when their stated commitments do not align with their actions.

Commentators are calling “brands that profess to support racial justice” without a single black board member “hypocrites”. Consumers are calling on brands to “own up” to their diversity, not only in their board rooms but in their employment ranks and supply chains, through powerful campaigns such as #PullUpOrShutUp. 

As SA continues to battle the legacy of apartheid it has, over time, developed a sophisticated set of laws and policies that may well serve as a blueprint for governments and companies across the globe that are considering ways of walking their talk with the BLM movement.

Globally, there is much corporate introspection and reflection about their contribution towards the flagrant disregard for black lives. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in an e-mail to employees that it “must change first” if it wants to help change the world. Microsoft has committed to investing in its talent pipeline by expanding connections with historically black colleges and universities.

Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted said in a statement that, as a result of the BLM protests, “we have had to look inward as individuals as well as an organisation and reflect on systems that disadvantage and silence black individuals and communities”.  Adidas pledged to fill at least 30% of all new positions in the US with black and Latino candidates, and to invest $120m in black communities.

In another bold move, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, who is married to tennis star Serena Williams, resigned from the board to make way for the first black director in the company’s history.

Finally, there seems to be a small but growing trend for venture firms in the US to support black founders and investors, in a climate where less than 1% of invested funds support black entrepreneurs.

In SA, wealth and poverty continues, in the main, to be stratified according to the racial classifications that were applicable under apartheid laws. However, SA has developed a much-acclaimed constitution, where section 9(2) enshrines the right to equality. This section specifically requires the country “to promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination”.

SA has consequently promulgated progressive laws, such as:

  • The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000, the stated purpose of which is to prevent and prohibit unfair discrimination and harassment; to promote equality and eliminate unfair discrimination; and prevent and prohibit hate speech.
  • The Employment Equity Act of 1998, which promotes equity and equal opportunity in the workplace.
  • The Skills Development Act of 1998, which is aimed at driving systemic growth of skills of employees, with a specific emphasis on black people and women.
  • The Broad-Based BEE Act of 2003, the stated objectives of which are to promote economic transformation to enable meaningful economic participation of black people in the economy; achieve a substantial change in the racial composition of ownership and management structures; promote investment programmes that lead to broad-based and meaningful participation in the economy by black people; and increase access to finance for black start-ups, small, medium and microenterprises, co-operatives and black entrepreneurs.

There is no doubt these laws have contributed to reframing the purpose and strategies of the business sector in SA. As a direct result, SA spent almost $10bn in 2018 on corporate social investment projects, according to Trialogue, a corporate social investment consultancy.

An Intellidex research report published in 2018 analysed 25 trusts and foundations created and endowed under BEE policies. It found that the collective value of those 25 trusts alone was about R37bn, with the funds focusing their efforts largely on education, supplier and entrepreneurship development programmes and social innovation projects benefiting black people.

Though SA still has a long way to go to achieve meaningful and real transformation of the economy, these laws foreshadow the concept of “corporate social justice”. Writing in Harvard Business Review recently, US diversity consultant Lily Zheng described corporate social justice as a reframing of corporate social responsibility that focuses any initiative or programme on the measurable, lived experiences of groups harmed and disadvantaged by society.

According to Zheng, corporate social responsibility is a self-regulated framework that has no legal or social obligation for corporations to actually create positive impact for the groups they purport to help. On the other hand, corporate social justice is a framework regulated by the trust between a company and its employees, customers, shareholders and the broader community it touches, with the goal of explicitly doing good by all of them.

“Where corporate social responsibility is often realised through a secondary or even vanity programme tacked on to a company’s main business, corporate social justice requires deep integration with every aspect of the way a company functions,” she wrote.

Organisations across the world would be doing themselves a favour by reviewing SA’s trendsetting regulatory regime to help find a solution for a more equitable distribution of wealth in future.

• Patel is a partner at Webber Wentzel.

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