In a straight-talking debate on building a cohesive, strong and equitable society in South Africa, Business Day in association with the  Konrad Adenauer Foundation(KAS) and the Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa (EFSA) brought leading figures in Business, Religious, Academic and Civil society together.

The online discussion moderated by Nompumelelo Runji saw Bonang Mohale (Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Chairman of The Bidvest Group Limited and Chairman of SBV), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka (President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), Prof. Jonathan Jansen (Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University and President of the Academy of Science of South Africa), and Business Day editor Lukanyo Mnyanda do a deep dive in trying to understand the barriers holding South Africa back from building a common vision of social cohesion.

The recent unrest that erupted in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal in July are part of a worrisome wave of protests that are growing in frequency and intensity in South Africa. Henning Suhr (Director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in South Africa) says this was a primary motivator to host the discussion with leading thought-leaders, in an attempt to diagnose the underlying causes and find a path to resolution.

Moderator Nompumelelo Runji pointed out that the initial spark of the July unrest was as a result of a political impasse, but that “the effect was a social and economic crisis that destabilised communities and heightened tensions between different groups in our society.” The violent protests and lootings have become a central expression of frustration and disillusionment across the country.

With the broad assumption that poverty and inequality are the underlying causes of these tensions, Bonang Mohale commented on the role of Business in closing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

Mohale highlighted that business leaders who believe their role is solely to maximise shareholder returns are missing the mark in the twenty-first century. While the role of Business first and foremost is to maintain survival and profitability, he believes in the need to “ensure that as business we deliver a notion of shared value.” He says that when business does well, society generally does well too.  But, he says, “there’s a problem when your own employees cannot afford the goods and services that you provide.”

The media plays an important role in nation-building and developing a society people are proud of. Lukanyo Mnyanda stressed the relevance of the media as a watchdog for leadership accountability, uncovering corruption, and informing society. “We cannot sort anything out well without first knowing what the problem is, and having honest discussions about it,” he says.

As a voice for the religious, Christian community in South Africa, Bishop Sipuka discussed the three-fold approach of the Church in engendering ethical leadership: a prophetic role, a formative role, and an active role in eliminating poverty by encouraging people to work, teaching people skills, and engaging in social welfare issues. “The only pity is that sometimes the government tends to see us as a competitor when we are only making a contribution, instead of seeing us as partners,” he says.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen says that “one of the best things we can do for both business but also for society as a whole is to give every child access to high-quality basic education.” A current failing is that there is too much energy focussed on the matric exam, by which time hundreds of thousands of young people have dropped out of the system. “It is important to recognise that we have a major problem. It’s not a middle-class problem, it’s a problem of the working classes and the poor.”

This was the first in a three-part Business Day Dialogues series in association with Konrad Adenauer Foundation(KAS) and the Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa (EFSA) that will next focus on grassroots governance and accountability, and the alleviation of childhood hunger.