Closing the trust gap between business and society will only be possible when the private sector addresses the full spectrum of challenges we face in our country. This was the message delivered by Sipho Pityana in his keynote address on the opening day of the three-morning Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2021, held on 22, 23 and 24 June.

“As we rightly show enthusiasm for the climate-change agenda, we must ask ourselves whether we can be trusted with the environment when we show indifference to the daily pain of race and gender discrimination and the condemnation of the many to the indignity of poverty and homelessness,” Pityana, the chairman of Izingwe Capital, told delegates at the virtual event.

As we emerge from the “ravaging era of state capture”, business needs to assert its commitment to ethical leadership and “an inclusive growth agenda that does not reproduce the country’s historical patterns of inequality”.

Pityana drew attention to the role that businesses are increasingly expected to play in society, particularly as research from the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that companies are now the most trusted institutions, ahead of non-profit organisations (NPOs), the government and the media.

While he highlighted the many pandemic initiatives that have allowed business to be viewed as a “trustworthy and reliable partner beyond profiteering”, such as working together with the government to ensure the rollout and local manufacture of vaccines, he also warned that the private sector needs to drive an agenda for inclusive growth founded on meaningful social compacts. “The pandemic and economic whirlwinds have created forced marriages between social partners, but we need to convert these into happy marriages where partners enjoy working together for the betterment of our country and continent,” he asserted.

This will involve strengthening the trust between labour, government, business and society, as well as drawing our neglected small- and medium-sized enterprises into supply chains. “There can be no inclusive economic agenda without small and medium enterprises as an answer to the challenge,” he said.

His vision for the future includes partnering and sharing resources with other African countries, since “we don’t have adequate infrastructure to deal with these things in isolation”. He suggested that Africa needs to craft its own agenda when it comes to stakeholder capitalism, with business making sure that it lifts others up when pursuing opportunities. He said that enterprises cannot thrive when education and health systems, as well as local government, do not function properly. “It’s inconceivable that we can succeed in a sea of failing and collapsing societies. We must be part of the solution.”

He concluded by saying: “We need to take our full citizenship as business – which is not just about enabling enterprises to make a profit but ensuring that we help societies to work successfully. It cannot be that we sleep peacefully at night with a large number of young people desperate for jobs.”

Purpose-driven organisations gaining momentum 

Pityana’s message set the tone for the first day of the conference, which was presented with the Momentum Metropolitan Foundation and themed “Purpose-driven organisations gaining momentum”. Other delegates went on to examine ways in which companies can “take their full citizenship” and fulfil their purpose, from how leaders determine organisational culture to linking staff to communities through volunteering and supporting the mental health and well-being of employees.

For Dr Marie Parramon-Gurney, chief transformative impact officer at NPO Skultcha, a key question that companies need to ask themselves is: “What legacy do you want to leave, beyond profit or shareholder value?” In the panel discussion titled “The journey from compliance to purpose”, she indicated that companies need to be catalysts for change, capable of making a “systemic and transformational impact” in society.

The session titled “Volunteering through a global pandemic” drew attention to how employee volunteering has helped to strengthen the resilience and mental health of staff, empowering them to “live active citizenship”, according to Charlene Lackay, group corporate social investment manager at Momentum Metropolitan.

In the final session of the morning, “Destigmatising mental health in corporate culture”, Linda Mthenjane, managing director of The Space Between Us, indicated that leaders should lead by example by sharing moments of vulnerability, even indicating where they themselves have sought professional help. Creating a culture of connection is vitally important to overcome the stigma of mental illness in the workplace – a necessity in a country in which 26% of the population has been diagnosed with either depression or anxiety.

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