South Africa’s July 2021 protest was possibly the most telling sign that the entrenched poverty in our country has reached catastrophic levels. It was, in fact, a loud call to action, not only on the part of government, but also every able-bodied South African.
Starting out as a pro-Zuma protest, the riots quickly led to the unchecked looting of some shopping malls and warehouses in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Multiple businesses and livelihoods were destroyed, and more than 300 people killed. Afterwards, it emerged that the motive had been partly economic and not only political. The lootings became, in fact, shopping trips for many deprived South Africans, some of whom had been living under the breadline for years.
The corporate social responsibility mandate of our government, and the many praiseworthy CSI efforts of the private sector, had not succeeded in averting the eruption of desperation that shocked all of South Africa. The fact is that in redressing South Africa’s appalling inequality, CSI efforts need to aim for a broader goal beyond meeting communities’ immediate needs to effect profound and enduring social change. Social impact initiatives therefore add a key element to CSR policy.
Whereas CSR refers, broadly speaking, to the policy approach an organisation takes as a social responsible entity, and CSI to the community upliftment strategies implemented, social impact initiatives are aimed at addressing pressing social issues, including social injustice and inequalities in terms of income, race and gender.
Such goals are most effectively achieved through a multi-sector partnership strategy which may involve a range of organisations including non-profits, and in particular the communities themselves. In matters such as gender-based violence, a nationwide reach is needed, as social issues are sadly quite pervasive.
For a proactive, people- and solutions-focused approach, the beneficiaries must be active partners in the process. Gaining knowledge and insight through engagement with all players, investigation and assessment is the first step. Working collaboratively, the multi-sector team needs to think creatively and drill down towards effective strategies for not only improving lives, but also changing mindsets towards achieving sustainable social impact.
The issues are, unfortunately, multiple. Even before 2020, South Africa struggled with a significant unemployment rate – 34,4% in 2021– and therefore poverty, which afflicts almost half of our population of 59,6 million. GBV, inequity and child abuse are widespread and impact almost every aspect of life. These issues are rooted in an ingrained lack of respect for certain sections of our population. It means that, without changing the mindsets that drive the disparagement of colour, women and children, social change may eventually be eroded. For this reason, maximising reach and awareness is key in rolling out social impact initiatives.
The private sector companies may launch their social impact initiatives both internally and externally. Internally, they may implement policies regarding diversity, gender equity, training opportunities, healthcare benefits and the like. Externally, they may have an impact on the public and industry through CSI. The point is to ensure that beyond meeting immediate community needs and window dressing the corporate image, companies can drive fundamental social transformation.
South Africans have clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the failings of our society, from inadequate service provision to gangsterism and drug abuse. Social impact initiatives need to systematically address these issues, along with unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, healthcare provision, HIV/AIDS, crime, corruption and many others. A particular concern in South Africa is the large number of women-headed and even child-headed households with inadequate incomes. Finally, amongst all of these issues, the plight of the disabled is still insufficiently addressed.
Social impact needs to drive change – economic and social inclusivity; access to education, livelihoods, healthcare and services; and protection of the vulnerable – from a basis of transformed attitudes. One of the key impact areas is our youth – our future leaders, movers and shakers. We should see the current high youth unemployment figure of 63% as a loud call to action. Education in all its forms is implicated, from early childhood development and basic education to skills training and tertiary institutions. In our rural areas, for example, inadequate education limits children’s future, and social impact initiatives are, in the final analysis, about ensuring a secure future for all South Africans.