Being A Black CSI Manager In South Africa Is Like A Manicured Graveyard (Flowered Up On Top, But Rot & Worms Inside)

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OK, OK, OK … Let’s back up for a second.  What is it with the South African development sector that it continues to persist with this level of unscrupulous behaviour?  Three different meetings – three different heads of prestigious institutions – and all sing the same tune!  This was my experience last week. It has forced me to address this issue again. I hope that black CSI managers and progressive boards take note. 

We’re almost 30 years into our democracy and CSI South Africa is still controlled by the same people that oppressed South African communities during apartheid.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at your own board.  You might say, Well, we have a black CSI manager.  Well, I had a chat to that black CSI manager and they say you are the most racist thing they have ever had to deal with.  It’s a bit like that old refrain loved by whites in the past, to prove they are not racist – ‘I have a black friend!’  

The question is, does your black CSI manager have the power to make decisions that are going to impact the community they come from?  How can you, a white person living in a suburban neighbourhood in a brick house, worried about walking your dog, understand black poverty?  The family, friends and neighbours of your black CSI manager are worried about putting food on the table. They are worried about taking their kids to school.  A thing as little as ZAR600 a month transport for their child is a mountain. Your CSI manager understands things at a depth you cannot, do not and seemingly never will.

I was speaking to a colleague who said that after 15 years as CSI manager in an organisation, he cannot make decisions on how to use the CSI budget. This is like buying a home in some estate and you are told you cannot do this or that to your house and yet you own the house.  Why on earth would you invest in such a constrictive thing?

Another black CSI manager tells me they have a budget of ZAR100 million, but may only approve ZAR100 thousand – that’s 0.001%!  All the rest must go through the board – the board that remains predominantly white, still reeling that blacks who used to sit at the back of the bus, come in from another door, drink from a different tap are now sitting in the same boardroom – as equals!

On top of this very limited spending power, this CSI manager is told where they can and cannot advertise – by a communication division that knows nothing about CSI and the real work of it.  I wrote about this last year – ‘Power, privilege and paupers’ positions – why some CSI managers have the positions but no power’ [(click me) to read the article].

Why is it that CSI boards are still predominately run and controlled by white people? I wrote about this, too [(click me) to read the article)]. We’re  30 years into a supposedly transformed state and the power still sits in the old hands!

The position of the black CSI manager is like a gravesite – flowered up on top but rotten inside. 

I sat in another meeting last week where division heads of a powerful organisation were discussing ways for their incredible work to be made more visible. They sang the same refrain – that they cannot do anything without board approval. To which the Head from another powerful banking institution said, ‘Guys, you’re CSI managers. You’re supposed to challenge this! It’s your role to do so – and if you don’t, who will?’

CSI departments struggle to do their work because their limbs have been cut off by the institution.  I asked this question years ago and I ask it again: Why should CSI communication and marketing budgets sit with Group comms.? It makes no sense. I even heard of an organisation hiring a CSI consultant in the UK to work in deep rural KZN.  I mean how does that work? When does this consultant get to spend time in Emadungeni? 

The true struggle is that the white boards still want to give the real work to their friends and family in the UK and Australia – on the back of black people who don’t have resources.  They’re just incredibly skilled at hiding their corruption.

In light of all this, CSRNEWS is launching a programme called Amavivane, Zulu for butterfly. The idea is a nod to the Daily Maverick’s Amabhungane – in this case a CSI-focused investigative unit to uncover stories of deliberate non-transformation and/or corruption in companies, with a particular focus on CSI. The point is not to accuse, but to uncover the truth, which is a pre-requisite for change. A caterpillar transforms into butterfly, and our hope is to see the CSI space transforming to the point where it has real muscle and wings.

The transformation space:
To CSI managers – and I am talking to those of the darker tone, who continue to fight a battle with the lighter toned boards  – you have to understand that you have entered a transformation space.  And transformation is a struggle. Understand that you are fighting on three fronts: at board level, community level and team level. It is unfortunate that you have to consider your boards as a combat zone, but that is the reality. Unless you are prepared to challenge the status quo, part of you will die. You are there for a reason, and that reason is to effect change in communities. You cannot do that if your arms and legs are tied.  

We are now giving you a supportive framework designed to help you.  Share your experiences with Amavivane, anonymously if you wish, by emailing amavivane@csrnews.africa

It is no good carping with your friends about your frustrations with the board. Do something about it! It is time we put action to our words.

Simphiwe Mtetwa
Simphiwe Mtetwa is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief for Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa.

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