Corporate Social Investment in South Africa: a view from the inside
“We must remember the history of mining in South Africa, of cheap black
labour, racism and exploitation. This is the model for the rest of Africa too.”
Reverend Dr Jo Seoka – Anglican Bishop of Pretoria and chairperson of Bench Marks Foundation
Up until 3 years ago I worked for a large South African non-profit which managed the Corporate Social Investment (CSI) funds of some of South Africa’s largest corporate mining companies, banks and health insurance funds.
I joined the organization as a recent postgraduate in Public Health. Having had experience in under-funded non-profits before this seemed to me to be an ideal situation: take from the rich and give to the poor; evidence-based decision making to implement sustainable development initiatives based on solid research. This was what I pictured. It took about 3 months to see the error in my thinking.
I quickly learned that the CSI funds were not spent according to good evidence and best practice, but rather, with very little sugar-coating, decisions were made based on corporate interests.
In fact this particular set up added an extra layer of “greenwashing”, as corporates who channeled their CSI funds through the organisation were able to claim that their CSI funds were outsourced to an “objective” third party.
In truth the fund managers were closely supervised to ensure that they were keeping their corporate counterparts happy – including coaching on how to “build relationships” and “play nice”, to keep the corporate as happy as possible, regardless of whether or not their ideas for investment were sound, informed or evidence-based.
One of my first tasks at the organization was, together with the “sustainability staff” of a large mining corporation, to manage the rollout of a software system to all their mines across the country. The software was designed as a reporting mechanism to capture the numbers of beneficiaries of CSI projects on the one hand, and on the other to capture complaints and grievances against the mine and measures taken to address them.
The combination of these two aspects of the business into one software and reporting system revealed a deep-seated and cynical truth:
CSI in South Africa, and in much of Africa, is about solving problems with the one hand that the corporate has created with the other, while garnering accolades for “development”, “charity” and “generosity” along the way.
In many ways, especially in Africa, CSI is simply a way for companies to escape responsibility. It allows them, at their own discretion, to put in place “solutions” to the very problems they themselves created in the first place. Problems which, under a stronger regulatory regime, they would be required to pay for.
When mining comes to your town, your town becomes owned by the mine. An unhealthy co-dependency is set up where community members begin to rely on the mine for everything, often because they have no other option. You will hear mining execs talk of this with something of a mixture of pride (we the omnipotent providers) and annoyance. They will proudly complain that community members come to them for everything: water, electricity, housing. Essentially they are saying, ‘we do good and without us this community would not survive’. And they are right, without them the community would not survive. But the mine execs forget, (and in their dismissal of the basic human dignity and agency of the people who formerly lived off the land), that the community was surviving just fine before the mine arrived on their doorstep.
The great argument used by corporates is that mining creates jobs, grows the economy, increases GDP. These measures are deeply convenient, as GDP and the monetary economy do not measure or value the jobs and livelihoods in the informal sector lost to mining. Small scale farming and livestock raising are not captured in calculations of GDP and so these communities are defined in the capitalist setting as worthless, poor, utterly without value until the mine comes.
I visited a small town in the Northern Cape – one of the “flagship” mines of this particular mining corporation. The mine is one of the largest open pit mines in the world – 14 km long and scheduled to have a lifespan of 19-years. One shudders to think what will become of the town at the end of that 19 years. When I visited the town was owned by the company in all but name. Everywhere you looked there were billboards advertising the company you could not escape, everyone was wearing company-issued uniforms. It was eerie.
The motto of the mine, at the time, was ‘safety’ – “The XXX Safety Way”. Adverts proclaimed the company’s “achievement” of 255 fatality-free days. So pervasive was this messaging that it even played late at night in the country club – one of the only areas for entertainment in the entire desolate town. Of course the reverse of this messaging was 255 days without anyone being killed. The fact that mines kill people was somehow being celebrated.
I was visiting this particular mine with the CSI personnel from the company, to survey a ‘CSI success’: mobile health vans to test for HIV. Again, a sinister truth was revealed: if this mine was not in this community it is likely that the prevalence of HIV would not be as high as it was. The Northern Cape is incredibly sparsely populated with historically low HIV prevalence; except in mining towns. The mine brought this particular disease to the people, and was now garnering accolades in delivering testing and treatment for a problem they caused.
Mining creates dependent, sick, poor communities and CSI is used as the excuse to argue this away. The mines build schools, which rightfully should be the preserve of government and go unstaffed and un-stocked as a result. They set up clinics to treat diseases which may not have existed, or been as severe in the community if the mine itself did not exist (silicosis, TB, HIV, the list goes on…)
I handed in my resignation letter soon after the Board of one of the companies I managed made a decision to invest large amounts of money in an awards programme for clients as opposed to well-researched grant programmes which would have improved health outcomes. I was no longer interested in perpetuating the myth that “Corporate Social Investment” was an investment in communities. It is only an investment in creating friendlier markets for business.