Corporate social investment (CSI) reporting is an essential element in developing social capital because the reports tell us about what corporates are doing to make a difference, what they are spending, why they have chosen to focus on a specific area of need and what the results are. The impact of these reports cannot be overstated because they form the basis of corporate social innovation – researching and innovatively redefining and developing how we can do CSI better.
We focus on the reports from South Africa’s mining industry, especially Anglo-American, Goldfields Implats and Sibanye-Stillwater, to see how the industry approaches CSI, or what they bundle under the heading of ‘sustainability’. The mining industry is a mainstay of the South African economy. This sector contributed R351 billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employed nearly half a million people in 2018 (mineralscouncil.org.za). They also play an important role in direct foreign investment. With this significant contribution to our economy, let’s see how they report on giving back to civil society.
The first red flag in reading the reports is that all make use of the term ‘our people’, without specifying or explaining who these people are or why the term is justified. We assume it refers to employees. Has anyone asked the employees if they identify with the mining corporation as ‘theirs’? This term implies ownership – people belong to them – and indicates an attitude of patriarchy where ‘people’ could not survive nor thrive on their own. In a world that is realising the importance of decolonisation, and especially in the South African context, we cannot stand for the use of language that perpetuates an unequal and oppressive ideology or not recognise that we all identify differently. This decolonisation process is especially relevant for CSI where we are seeking innovative social practices to help people take control of their fate.
Also problematic is use of ‘sustainability’. There is nothing sustainable about mining which uses finite resources and can also stop production when mines become unprofitable. The development projects which the mines support may be impacted by these closures, but also, there are many important civil society support programmes which could never be sustainable, such as orphanages and women’s shelters – they will always rely on outside funding. Even if this is an accepted international usage, we should be leaders and describe interventions accurately. We shouldn’t try to misrepresent an industry that is essentially unsustainable.
Don’t alienate your reader
Reports are there to clearly present the role of the mining company in helping and strengthening civil society in language that everyone understands. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The first issue is the use of acronyms which leaves a reader nonplussed. If your reader is not involved in the mining industry, they will not remember what the multitude of acronyms refer to. Spell out acronyms relating to the mining industry throughout! Readers are not impressed with ‘shop talk’ and can assume that you don’t want them to understand what you are saying.
Second, and related to the use of acronyms; think about who your reader is before writing your reports. Are the reports a marketing tool for your company – icing on a not-so-delicious cake – or a useful platform to share your successes and failures with your reader, and those in the CSI industry who want to learn from you. Take, for example, this excerpt from the Implats report:
‘We have established good foundations for collaborating with our communities and other stakeholders to promote sustainable, vibrant communities post mine-closure. These focus areas dovetail with our commitment to meaningfully advance our local procurement and business development programmes and to capacitate enterprises to not only become part of our supply chain but to transition to provide their services nationally.’
This paragraph does not really say anything nor explain what a ‘vibrant community’ is or why it should be sought. These specific types of representation, the selected words, give no detail about what the collaborations are, nor how suppliers are supposed to transition from a specific local demand to an assumed national one.
Part of the problem with these wordy sentences that say nothing may be the assumption that reports consisting of many pages are more value-laden and emphasise the extensive work that is being done. They do not. They leave the reader confused and bored.
An additional issue is an oft repeated phrase which is meant to show the mines are in line with current legislation: ‘The partnerships we build, both within Anglo American and with our stakeholders – locally and globally – are central to maintaining our regulatory and social licences to operate and our sustained commercial success.’ (Anglo American Sustainability Report 2020). It should be pointed out that many readers will interpret the wording as ‘we are only doing this because we have to – government legislation is forcing us to’.
The result from reading four mining industry reports is sheer exhaustion and knowing very little about what they are actually doing in CSI with an approximately 563-million-rand investment. Very disappointing from an industry that has potential to make real and decisive change.
A better way
It takes a great deal of time to find the sections of the reports that are relevant to CSI and it is important to question how many people would take the time and trouble to do so. While they give their total spend for different sectors such as education, health, sports, arts and culture, there is very little detail on the projects themselves – the people driving the projects and the people benefitting.
Three major points the mining industry should consider when constructing their reports. The first is to separate the information relating to the productivity of the mines, how they are ameliorating their environmental impact using innovative technologies, and the policy environment, from the work they do in helping people, both employees and local communities. It is obvious that a one-size-fits all approach does not work. Design and write each report according to who it is aimed at – investors, government departments, environmental organisations and the CSI industry. Doing so allows them to target their reader and for CSI, to give explicit detail about the specific projects they are involved in and the results. Important learning for other corporates and NGOs; ultimately everyone in the CSI industry.
Second, if we have misunderstood or misread something in the mining reports the fault is not ours. Information should be presented in a way that is clear and understandable to all readers – it should not need to be interpreted.
Third, the mining industry should consider what the reader wants to know: how much money is being spent in which sectors and the reasons for choosing those sectors. What are the results from long-term projects and how has this learning impacted practice? Consider also the people who want to benefit from, or be of benefit to, the interventions and how they can be involved or help. There may be other corporates who could strengthen the value of the mines’ inputs. Of critical importance is to present this information in clear and plain English.
We want to take it at face value that the mining industry does care about investing in civil society and developing social capital. Don’t hide it in lengthy reports that don’t really say anything.