There is a practice in the South African CSI industry that I believe we need to address and change. I see evidence of it when we get invited to launches and openings, particularly of schools; corporate branding is everywhere. It is so in your face that at times you can hardly see the school’s name.
At a recent school event I attended, the sponsor’s sign at the
school gate was so big, distracting and annoying that one had to stand at a certain
angle just to see the entrance and the flagpole in front of it. I don’t know
about you, but I grew up at a time when the South African flag meant something;
while it was being hoisted, you stopped what you were doing, put your right
hand over your heart and paid attention. It was a moment of complete respect. In
South Africa today, some CSI managers or marketing managers in the big
corporates couldn’t care less; they push their names to the fore, obscuring the
school and its concerns with their signs and their message: ‘Big
Brand X– loaf, brown, with the face of a black
child, having taken a bite at the bread.’
What incenses is the fact that these company representatives, having generously donated hundreds of thousands to a library, computer lab or new buildings, can sweep in for the day and erect their signs, making a big splash with their videos and cameras, while the kids for whom it’s all intended walk to school barefoot, ragged and hungry. The computers are great, but which child cares about computers and the big billboard when his whole life is a shambles? Can some of our CSI and communications managers not see that the community is hungry – not for computers but for true social upliftment, for choice, for dignity, for the very basics of life?
When you see a learner walking barefoot to school, take out ZAR200, give it to the teacher and ask them to buy the learner some shoes – it’s that simple. Where is the moral component of our social responsibility, outside of our corporate giving? Our corporate spending is at times so self-serving, so single minded in its pursuit of payoffs, that it hardly makes a dent. Are you, dear CSI manager, not a mother or a father? Would you allow your child to go to school like that? Where are the mothers and caregivers we grew up with, where are the parents who walked out at night with cabbages and mielie meal to give the neighbour, so they had something to eat the following day?
In South Africa today, black communities continue to struggle
for the bare necessities, are still plagued with disease, poverty and early death.
Twenty-five years into our democracy, and we are still writing these declarations.
It is unacceptable. Yet you want the
learner to appreciate and thank you for the computer you bought. You put up a
big billboard with a smiling learner wearing a perfect uniform, tucking into
fresh bread and a huge slab of butter, and you ignore the real needs of the
people you purport to want to uplift. As
the Nigerians say, ‘My friend, sit down.’
Why do we do CSI?
Let’s just draw back and ask ourselves why we work in the field of corporate social investment. Is it just a means for us to pay our bond, car instalments and entertainment bills? Is CSI just a means for a bread company to get their brand name established in every community across the country, at the relatively low cost of a few computers? Or are we compelled by a burning desire to make a difference?
I find some CSI managers at times so insensitive, so removed
from the real world, so unimaginative, in fact, that they cannot conceive of a
way to make a difference other than through the ubiquitous computer lab and the
massive sign, for which everything else must make way. We need to rethink our
motives and our modus operandi.
I hear your thoughts: ‘But the computers will help this community get out of their poverty and improve access to the world.’ True – but have you thought further than the hardware and the room in which to house it?
- Is there a clued-up, technically trained staff member to oversee the functioning of these computers?
- Have you considered training and paying the salary of someone from the community to service the computers and the wi-fi infrastructure on an ongoing basis, so that two years down the line every computer is in tip-top condition and still being used?
- Have you thought about supplementing your gift with food for the learners? It may be hard to believe, but many learners eat once a day. If they do eat more than once, meals may be so nutrient deficient that one wonders how they continue to grow. One cannot learn much on a diet of bread and mielie-meal.
‘We’ll do it our own way’
In my capacity as head of CSRNEWSSA, I get to talk to many CSI managers in big companies. After lengthy discussions about the possibility of joining a united endeavour to impact a community (something we have raised on numerous occasions) I am invariably told, ‘We don’t advertise or participate in initiatives of this sort as we believe in giving to the community directly. Our policy won’t allow.’
Two weeks later I find myself in some deep rural area and lo and behold, there is Company X, which ‘doesn’t advertise’, on full display in the most visible part of the school, announcing its presence through a loudhailer: ‘This library was donated by Company X’. Who wants to know?
The truth is, all we want to know is that the children in those schools are using the merchandise effectively, have clean clothes, roofs over their heads and three meals a day. We want to know that the gift you generously donated answered a felt need, as expressed by them, and not the CSI manager’s idea of what that school needed. We want to know that any computer learning is being launched off a sound foundation – a well-fed, properly clothed cohort of learners. We want to know that capable, enthusiastic teachers are at hand to introduce those learners to the amazing world of knowledge available with a computer and a wi-fi connection.
To me it is beyond sad that organisations are spending millions and millions of rands on libraries and air-conditioned containers stocked with hardware without having done anything approaching a socio-economic study of the community and its needs.
In one of the schools I visited we drove past a sea of baby graves – all children who had died within months of their births. I had to question what we were doing there. Did we really understand the framework of these learners’ lives? Had we considered the likelihood that many of the school children we passed had siblings in those graves; that at least one parent, if not both, had died within the last five years, and that many of these children straggling along barefoot had been up since four, taking care of younger family members?
I think it is unfair to schools, the community and to South Africa that we put up signs, billboards and plaques at every opportunity in order to brand ourselves when our giving has been a once-off event. I advocate a wholesale removal of signs from schools, gardens, hospitals and every other structure where we have ‘done CSI’ We are putting our companies’ needs first and destroying the nature of places of learning.
In addition, let us take far more of a whole-learner, whole-community approach. These children identify with their community in ways you do not understand. Many are suffering the trauma of illness and death at home, many are hungry and undernourished, and many are freezing in winter. Our computers are well intended, but they are a plaster on a body that is not functioning well. We have the means to dig deeper, to be of service to the whole community and not just the school, and to make a difference by really listening before we start giving.
We have the power and the means, but are we prepared to give
up some of the expected benefits for ourselves, and put these communities first?
love endures long and is patient and kind; it is never envious nor boils over
with jealousy, is not boastful or vainglorious, does not display itself
‘It is not conceited (arrogant and inflated with pride); it is not rude (unmannerly) and does not act unbecomingly. Love (God’s love in us) does not insist on its own rights or its own way, for it is not self-seeking … It does not rejoice at injustice and unrighteousness, but rejoices when right and truth prevail.’