Friday, 31 October 2014 00:00

The Role Of Business Leaders In Social Change

It was the Scottish-American steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, who once remarked: “He who dies with wealth, dies with shame.” It is a statement that became an article of faith for many conscientious businessmen who came to understand that they had a bigger role to play in society than simply running their enterprises.


By the late 19th Century, Carnegie had turned his full attention to admonishing the super rich to give a substantial amount of their wealth thoughtfully. His tract, the Gospel of Wealth, was a variation on the biblical theme: “To whom much is given, much is required.” In human form, its incarnation is Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge launched in 2010.


Philanthropy is an old tradition, especially in the Western world. Patrice Motsepe’s largesse in the form of nearly US$1m contribution towards the Ebola Fund in the Republic of Guinea is a powerful gesture by an African business leader, at a time when global political leaders are in a tangle about appropriate responses to the Ebola virus. This comes two weeks after Ban Ki-moon the United Nations Secretary General had lambasted global leaders for failing to pull their financial muscle and contribute to the UN Ebola Fund.


Many of these leaders, including from Western countries and the rising emerging powers, are completely out of touch with reality, and suffer a subdued sense of responsibility. As with many other global challenges from climate change, to security conflicts, to half-baked trade pacts, and to global financial instability, politicians take longer to agree on a common approach. They have a short-term view of the world.


In the absence of forward-looking political leadership, tackling some of the major global risks requires enlightened and transformative leaders in business and the civic sphere. Such leaders, especially wealthy individuals, can tap into their resources and meet critical challenges where they arise. This does not mean that they can substitute for the role of political leaders, but that they should not act as if they do not have the power to effect change.


It is worth highlighting that since the financial crisis in 2008, the number of billionaires in the world has more than doubled, swelling to 1645 people, according to a new Oxfam Report, Even It Up. Of these billionaires, 16 are in Sub-Saharan Africa, co-existing with 358 million people living in extreme poverty. Africa’s wealthy have the power to rewrite the African narrative and alter the continent’s destiny for the better.


In South Africa the type of new business leader we have is obsessed with rubbing shoulders with the political elite. You would typically find such businessmen gleefully throwing money at party fundraising events, but are nowhere to be seen amidst global challenges. Those who do anything positive, tend to limit their contribution to narrowly conceived corporate social responsibility projects that are neither transformative nor sustainable.


The role of business leaders in society is not just about building a positive image and nurturing relationships with stakeholders for brand value, but crucially to catalyse positive change. There is much to learn from the US tradition of philanthropy. It was back in 2010 when Buffet made a call to the wealthy to give half of their wealth to charitable causes.


Buffett’s call helped to raise social consciousness of many wealthy individuals who were comfortable in their riches while the world burnt. Some of the wealthy individuals who are part of Forbes 400 pledged enormous amounts of money towards education, environment, and health. Many of them were already known for their generosity. Motsepe is one of the signatories to Buffett’s Giving Pledge.


It matters that Motsepe is an African, and has made a substantial contribution towards tackling Ebola. Gestures like these could role model transformative philanthropy in the African continent. In the past, Africans were known for their penchant to extend a begging bowl to the West, petitioning for donations. This is despite the fact that Africa is resource-rich. From the provision of health infrastructure to food programmes, western donors have had to fill the social deficits in many African countries, mostly as a result of bad governance.


Unsurprisingly, therefore, the African identity is defined largely by Africa’s dependence on the West, as well as its subordinated position in the global hierarchy of power. It is acts like Motsepe’s that could illuminate a path for a new generation of African business leaders who are not just absorbed into their enterprises or obsessed with cosying up to politicians, but see greater value in tackling some of the major challenges confronting their countries and global society today.


This article was first published in the Business Day 31 October 2014