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Abe Thebyane: Business can, and should do more

December 2, 2016

Not a month has gone by in 2016 without some part of the education sector making headlines, elevating it to one of the most pertinent issues on the national agenda.

The echoes of the challenges in this sector, both in basic and tertiary education, have no doubt been heard in the strategic planning sessions of corporate South Africa. The private sector will have taken heed of these concerns, partly because it influences the national political agenda and partly because of its impact on the future availability of appropriately qualified employees.

But I would like to argue that education should be on the corporate agenda for another reason – as a way of earning our social license to operate.

Earning the trust of our communities

Corporations have over time grown to become some of the largest economic entities in the world. By some estimates, 50 of the 100 largest economic entities are companies and even in South Africa the largest listed corporations have a reach that stretches far wider than our own borders, with financial capabilities to match.

South African companies are no doubt sensitive to the challenges facing our beautiful country and the need to use some of their financial and corporate influence to positively affect the challenges created by the poisonous mix of inequality, poverty, unemployment and poor education.

By directly addressing these challenges, South African companies effectively bridge the gap in trust between them and the communities in which they operate and to which they are selling their products and services. This makes it both a social and a financial imperative.

Education provides the greatest leverage

Of the many challenges facing South Africa, I believe education offers the greatest future leverage. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Global School Ranking report (2015), South Africa’s GDP would grow by 2,624% over their lifetime if all students achieved a basic level of education to just the age of 15.

With this in mind, education truly has the greatest capacity for creating abundance. It is also the best long term investment in creating a prosperous community that is both receptive to the range of products and services that we sell and that are capable of driving the future growth of our organisations and this country.

But merely directing some of your organisation’s corporate social investment funds into painting classrooms or starting a vegetable garden will not provide the fundamental and long-lasting change that is required. To do this, as is so clearly articulated by the Business as an Agent for World Benefit movement, organisations will have to apply some of their unique skills to the problem at hand.

Sustainable and systematic change

One social enterprise has created a very well-considered programme to not only harness the capabilities of organisations, but also foster long term change in organisations.

Partners for Possibility (PfP) creates partnerships between a business leader and a school principal of an under-resourced school. This partnership, which is formally managed for a year and often extends well beyond that, is structured as an equal partnership between the two leaders, with the primary aim of growing their leadership capacity.

The thinking behind this leadership capacitation programme is that no other intervention in an under-resourced school is likely to flourish if the school lacks strong leadership skills. The unfortunate reality is that most of the 20 000 principals in under-resourced schools are ill prepared for their highly challenging job of managing the school, its finances, the demands from hundreds or thousands of children and their parents, social ills such as drug usage and teenage pregnancy and the ever increasing burden from their district office and the provincial education department.

Through this process, both the business leader and school principal receive leadership training and professional coaching, while the practical element of their training is finding the major challenges of their specific school and creating solutions to solve them.

Growing future leaders

At Nedbank, we have sent scores of current and future business leaders on the PfP programme. In return, we have seen these leaders being challenged in an environment completely different from their own and one in which they do not have any positional power. At the same time, we see these leaders become far more sensitive to the challenges facing South Africa and many of their customers or constituents.

In working with PfP and seeing the improvement in the many schools that we are involved with, we have seen the importance of getting directly involved in one of South Africa’s biggest social challenges. The time is right and the benefits of getting involved, immeasurable.

6 Comments

  1. Chris
    December 2, 2016 - 11:48 am

    While I agree in principle with your ideas, I’m afraid there isn’t really a lot of short term incentive for corporations to fully embrace this type of development. You should know that long term plans shape short term plans only if it is certain that your company will survive until then. In tough times, short term plans usually trump long term plans. Corporations go into survival mode.

    Current government policy doesn’t help at all.

    When you look at the BEE scorecard, contributions to socioeconomic development hangs right at the very bottom. The entire BEE policy is the wrong way around, where employment of an unqualified “cadre” can potentially (and also in reality) be more beneficial to a corporation than contributing to socioeconomic development.

    Keeping in mind that our economy is currently in survival mode, corporations might be more inclined to just appoint a few unqualified black managers to window dress or to just give a politician a chair on the board. The scores such a move would put on the current BEE scorecard would give a corporation an immediate advantage in this economic climate for potentially less money. Do not be fooled to think this is not designed this way on purpose. We have probably one of the most corrupt systems in the world because of this. Therefore, first BEE policy needs to change, and merit will have to start coming first.

    If policy doesn’t change, all these ideas will just remain talk. If policy doesn’t change, what we truly need is a regime change.

    Reply
  2. Greg
    December 2, 2016 - 2:55 pm

    Business? What precisely has government done to promote business involvement? Government’s basic function is to create an enabling environment and that is crudely missing.

    Reply
  3. Greg
    December 2, 2016 - 3:38 pm

    so what happened to the comment I posted? It disappeared, are you clandestinely erasing comments that may not agree to your particular bent?

    Reply
    • Chris
      December 2, 2016 - 4:34 pm

      Well, this must be pretty embarrassing… 🙂

      Reply
  4. Rowan
    December 2, 2016 - 9:37 pm

    Abe, I salute your efforts in firstly getting involved in Partners for Possibility and secondly sharing the message to a broader audience. It is an amazing opportunity to assist in improving the experience and opportunity for many kids. Everyone I have come into contact with who has direct experience of PfP has found it to be hugely rewarding. Just contributing to a better society and giving kids a better chance has a magic about it and gives deeper meaning to very busy lives. Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  5. Debz
    December 3, 2016 - 6:48 pm

    I don’t get it….nothing in Abe’s comments is about BBBEE. The paragraphs are clearly about business taking a stand against poor education management and developing leaders side by side in a win win situation. If both business leaders and school principles are developed together, the winner will be the South African learner. Creating a positive well managed eduction structure can only bear well for the future of South African learners, the work force and our society.

    Reply

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