To navigate the many challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa had to act fast. The Solidarity Fund was established to unite the country in the fight against Covid-19, to bring relief to an overburdened health system and to alleviate the humanitarian crisis unfolding before us.
At the beginning of lockdown there was a national call to businesses, citizens, ministers, and corporate leaders to rally behind the Solidarity Fund. The response was among the largest in the history of South African philanthropy; the Solidarity Fund raised over R3 billion from more than 2 300 companies and foundations and 300 000 citizens.
So far, the funds have been allocated to supplying significant quantities of high-quality PPE and medical equipment to the public health system and community health workers, boosting national testing capacity, providing food parcels and vouchers to over 400,000 families, supporting an additional 35 000 small-scale farmers, and driving a national communications and behavioural change campaign.
The fund is chaired by businesswoman, Gloria Serobe, with Adrian Enthoven as her deputy chair.
Enthoven is currently also executive chairman of Yellowwoods, a European-based private investment group, as well as a board member, chairperson and trustee of many other institutions.
Considered one of South Africa’s high-profile leaders, Enthoven spoke to us about leadership, decision-making under duress and staying true to an organisation’s purpose.
What is your definition of leadership?
Leadership is about embodying and championing the purpose, values and culture of an organisation. It is about courage and tenacity, and knowing that success is built on the foundation of teamwork and the space for people in the organisation to contribute their diverse skills and perspectives. It is about inspiring and motivating everyone in the organisation to enhance the contribution they make, both individually and collectively. It requires selflessness and a suppression of ego. Leadership is about knowing that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, and working hard to build and align the stakeholders of an organisation around a clearly articulated culture and set of values. Leadership is about a tireless and unrelenting pursuit of success, however it may be defined.
I am inspired by the great leaders in the history of South Africa; Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Beyers Naude, Zachie Achmat, Albie Sachs and my mentor, Van Zyl Slabbert. They all made their mark and shaped history by being principled, committed and courageous leaders.
What went through your mind when you received the phone call to help establish the Solidarity Fund?
When I received the call, I did not hesitate in accepting the role. I knew that all South Africans would be called upon to step up and contribute, and I knew that my experience would enable me to be of value to the Fund.
I felt the weight of a huge responsibility, not only to ensure that the funds that would be entrusted to us by thousands of companies and individuals would be well managed, but that we would ensure that we used these funds to have the greatest possible impact on the crisis.
I realised that the Fund would need to play a pivotal role in both helping the health system prepare for the tsunami that was on its way, and also to support those impacted by the pandemic. We were being given the opportunity to have a significant impact on the lives of countless fellow South Africans, and this opportunity could not be squandered.
When you received the call, where were you and who was the first person you spoke to regarding the opportunity?
I was on holiday in the Eastern Cape with my wife. I spoke to her about it and she was very supportive of my decision. She believed I could help make a difference.
How did you prepare for the role?
There was no time to prepare! The very next morning after our appointment we had to start the process of building a new institution. Within weeks we had assembled a new board, recruited some 80 fulltime volunteers and 15 companies providing pro bono services, built partnerships to deliver on our mandate, raised over R2bn and had already committed over R1bn to get urgently needed PPE to frontline health workers and to address the crisis of hunger and food insecurity.
What thought processes went into making the decisions regarding who would qualify for funds and why?
We asked ourselves three questions:
- Is it fulfilling our mandate?
- Are we addressing a problem that needs the Solidarity Fund? i.e. If we don’t respond to the need will someone else respond to it? We needed to be confident that if we did not respond to the need, then the impact would not have happened.
- Are we able to make a significant difference relative to the scale of the problem?
We didn’t want to spend money on small things or on problems that would be solved anyway. It was important to identify causes whose needs would otherwise not be met.
The Fund has been disciplined and focused, ensuring that our disbursements were targeted to areas of greatest need.
How are the funds directed?
The funds have been targeted at three core focus areas:
- To support the health system across the country to prepare for and respond to the pandemic.
- To provide humanitarian relief to those impacted by the crisis.
- To lead a national communication and behavioural change campaign to mobilise citizens, businesses, civil society and communities to work together to fight the virus, and to shift the behaviours in order to reduce infections and ‘flatten the curve’.
In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?
Although this assignment has been hugely rewarding, it’s also been very challenging.
South Africa is a highly politicised and polarised country, which has meant we have been operating in a very low-trust environment.
A lot of people misinterpreted and misunderstood the purpose and nature of the fund, and many still do. When the fund was launched, some people were under the impression that the funds would be used for providing relief or financial support to businesses. More recently, the Solidarity Fund has been confused with the corruption linked to government’s Covid efforts. The Solidarity Fund is not a government fund. We are independently and professionally run to the highest governance standards, and there has been no misuse of donor funds.
If I could go back and do things differently, I would emphasise these facts from an earlier stage and quickly correct misperceptions when they arose. I also think we should have communicated more regularly with the media, and had more information about our work on our website. The Fund is wholeheartedly committed to full transparency and we will fully account for where all our money has come from and where it has been spent, but we should have publicly reported on our activities more consistently.
Despite the difficult and highly political operating environment, I believe we have managed to keep our focus on our purpose and to maintain our ‘true north’.