/ 9 September 2020

Unethical businesses will face people’s protest

Gatvol: Citizens march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria protesting against corruption in government.
Gatvol: Citizens march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria protesting against corruption in government. (Delwyn Verasamy)


It is likely that companies will see increasing “public” protests against them, similar to the “service delivery” protests against government corruption, mismanagement and poor public services, unless they exercise greater democratic corporate citizenship.

Rising private sector corruption, price-fixing and defective products have increased societal distrust in corporates. Corporate corruption — as seen at Steinhoff, one of South Africa’s largest companies, which announced in December 2017 that it had committed “accounting irregularities” — are, for many citizens, not isolated incidents, but reflect a culture of systemic corruption in the private sector.  

The roll call of corruption in the private sector almost mimics that in the public sector. In 2017, three South African banks were implicated among 17 banking groups of collusion to fix the price of the rand, after an investigation by the Competition Commission since 2015.

In November 2017, the department of water affairs and sanitation revealed that 36 mines operate without water licences, in violation of the National Water Act. They use water and waste and pollute without being monitored by the department.

In five case studies on mines ranging from platinum to coal by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2018 found that very little of the social and labour plans mining companies signed up to were implemented.

The study found that mining companies have spectacularly failed to build houses, provide childcare and bursaries as well as training. In most cases the companies also did not tell employees and local residents about their promised social and labour plan commitments.

In 2013, 15 construction companies agreed to pay fines totalling R1.4-billion for collusive tendering related to constructions linked to the 2010 Football World Cup. The companies had to sign an “integrity commitment” to ensure they will not be involved in future collusive or corrupt practices.

In 2012, the Competition Commission announced that several fishing companies had admitted to fixing the price of pelagic fish, which included anchovy, pilchards and red-eye round herring.

In 2007, a number of bread companies, including Tiger Brands, were found guilty of fixing the price of bread and cost of milling. 

Six of South Africa’s leading milk producers were accused in 2006 of price-fixing in a case that went on until 2011.

Residents have chased mining companies away from setting up operations even if such investments would create jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure locally. Yet, local and foreign company executives are often perplexed about why they are rejected by local residents or why they are criticised when they supposedly create jobs and bring new investments and opportunities.

For example, people increasingly fear mining companies will destroy the environment, strike black economic empowerment deals with dodgy traditional leaders and politically connected cadres, who would be expected by the companies to shield them from citizens’ pressure when they damage the environment, fail to adhere to mining licence conditions of providing social housing and supplier opportunities for local small business.

The residents surrounding Lonmin have, since 2016, embarked on protests against the company’s alleged failure to build promised low-cost housing, which forms part of the company’s obligations under its mining operating licence condition.

Legal action by citizens against errant companies are also on the increase. Last year law firms launched class action lawsuits totalling R400-million against Tiger Brands over the deadly listeriosis outbreak of 2017, in which 200 people died. Aaron Motsoaledi, the health minister at the time, said in 2018 that the outbreak of listeriosis had been traced to an Enterprise Foods facility in Polokwane.

Many black South Africans were, in the past, critical of businesses for their active collaboration with apartheid practices such as racial divisions of labour in the workplace, which deprived generations of black people of opportunities, skills and benefits. Others have been critical of business based purely on ideological reasons, arguing wrongly that only the state can deliver on inclusive development.

Many citizens now argue that, given the high number of incidents of corruption, greed and malpractices by companies, they must increase their dividends to locals, whether by creating more jobs, supplying opportunities and providing “public” services, such as roads.

This new trend where people expect companies to deliver “services” in return for being allowed to operate will increase.

Companies — especially mining companies or those that produce goods intended mainly for black people, but now increasingly other companies — are being asked to fulfil a “social licence” to operate. Such a licence is seen as “having the approval, the broad acceptance of society, to conduct its activities”.

Corruption, ethical breaches and behaviour inconsistent with declared organisational values undermine the companies’ credibility and erodes trust, public approval and, ultimately, social commitments.

Corporate democratic citizenship means companies that behave — pursue growth and profit and work with the external environment, stakeholders and society — according to the values of South Africa’s democratic Constitution.

The traditional corporate social responsibility programmes won’t do anymore. Neither will token black economic empowerment, affirmative action and taking customers for granted.

Democratic corporate citizenship is not only reflected in the way a company works with its external environment, but also its internal corporate culture. It means within the company it must strive for gender equality, non-racialism, diversity and ethical decision-making. They should behave ethically, be socially responsible and safeguard the natural environment.

Democratic corporate citizenship is crucial for a company if it is to secure the “social licence” to operate from society.

William Gumede is the executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This is an edited extract of a presentation he gave to the South African Council of Churches’ anti-corruption webinar on September 9 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.