7 Challenges For Business Leaders To Achieve Social Transformation In South Africa

Carolin Gomulia delivered this talk at Nation Builder’s In Good Company 2018 conference.
She is an independent consultant for strategy development and fundraising, as well as a columnist for Daily Maverick. In an article she challenged transformation, suggesting that what we most need in South Africa is a drive towards Social Transformation. After a decade in the development sector, she has realised transformation is a global paradigm, a particular pathway for change. The National Not for Profit Organisation’s website shows 197,000 NPOs registered with the Department of Social Development in South Africa. This is a huge number. “It gives a sense that these are all organisations working to improve our country, yet the change that this astronomical figure is working towards isn’t happening on quite the same scale,” Gomulia explains. Change and positive impact are only happening in small pockets of society.
The country needs a different plan than the current development paradigm. The term Social Transformation captures better what we are striving for. It hints at change that is profound, complete and radical. It speaks to disrupting, interrupting and re-starting; thinking outside the box; requiring brutal honesty and clarity. It means not repeating the cycles of poverty but focussing on innovation and solutions which may scare us, but could generate the type of energy that propels us forward. This transformation would require going against mainstream approaches of traditional philanthropic institutions. The transformation agenda must have decency and dignity at its core. This type of transformation requires a commitment focussed on quality, sustainability, excellence and effectiveness. It requires boldness in order to create world-class interventions. Avoid perpetuating the same old ways. Social Transformation needs to be activated by designing corporate solutions which allow for the complexity of the matters at hand. Gomulia explained that there is no ‘how to’ manual on this subject. Instead, she offered seven challenges to start people thinking about what is required to have the courage for applying Social Transformation.
Don’t look for immediate visible results
Stop thinking about projects; avoid terms such as skills development, entrepreneurship, education. Instead consider how to solve a problem without looking for projects that will bring immediate, visible results. For example, could organisations running feeding schemes feed hungry children, while also seeking a way to eradicate hunger in that area? By working to solve a specific problem we should aim, in time, to completely eliminate the problem. It is important to provide immediate relief, such as feeding hungry children. But that should go hand in hand with finding a way to prevent the problem from arising. We think the issues South Africa is facing are too complex and challenging, so we revert to short-term relief instead.
Look out for new, different and radical
The development industry is a multi-billion Rand industry. Its prime purpose is to bring change for the greater good, yet the results are minimal. It requires brutal honesty, which is difficult in the social sector. We are too polite because we are all about doing good, so we are part of a paradigm of what has always been done. CSI and social impact have wonderful intentions but we must question the effects. Are there long lasting transformative changes? A literacy program can show how many children benefit in the longer term and how it impacts on their school performance, but how will that benefit society? Gomulia asks, “Are we enabling someone with no hope of a job to have some form of employment? Is that enough?” We should be creating human value; ensuring children develop a worldview; the ability to think analytically and follow the career they choose without feeling beholden. We should be networking with others to ensure that literary programs carry significant impact to ensure that reading becomes the favourite pastime in all of South Africa’s society.
Engage with complexity
Business leaders want to see quick results. That is understandable.  Gomulia challenges big business to engage in debates on complex issues. Business is all about risk-taking; you have to be bold and audacious, yet aware that success may only happen in the distant future. Challenge the projects organisations or your CSI department to consider more complex issues. Find the best person to advise you on the topic. Linked to complexity is the need for a research and development budget. NGO projects are usually funded with the understanding that results will be speedily forthcoming. Some donors allow for pilot projects, but generally, there is very little allowance for research and development (R&D). But R&D is necessary to generate the most sustainable results, which means that the social sector should also spend time and money for that purpose.
Open and frank discussions
We need to acknowledge the almost 400 years of repression and de-humanisation in order to bring about change in this country. Open and honest discussions are necessary to process that dehumanisation and repression. Discover its effect on the human spirit and how it affects wanting to become an economically active human being. Let’s tackle the systems and structures that remain unchanged and unchallenged.
To bring about radical change you must find the best of the best in the world that can offer solutions to the problems. Interventions must be tailored to the local context but you need the best in the world that have already tackled a similar problem and found an innovative solution. We should not limit ourselves to local organisations when seeking our solutions. Look for the best technology beyond our borders, if need be, but excellence is non-negotiable.
Consider scale
Donors approached by Gomulia with funding proposals have always asked how she would scale the intervention. It makes sense to consider how to reach the most people; how investments could maximise results for the largest number of people. However, scaling is not always desirable as it often deprives the intervention of depth and complexity.
Collaboration has become a buzz-word in the social sector as networks will assist with resource and knowledge-sharing, yet there are few examples where it proved successful or effective. Collaboration takes time and effort and all partners think their project is best. This is based mainly on passion or emotion, not on evidence or data. “When we design interventions, cross-sector and cross-discipline collaborations are vital but need to be deliberate and issue-driven. There needs to be a commitment that is not about protecting turf,” Gomulia explained.
Gomulia concluded by saying she hoped she had challenged leaders in business and the social sector to be more courageous, think differently and shift the conversation. If we believe in the goal of a better South Africa then we must change our minds. Things will be tough and uncomfortable but we must risk going against the grain to see a truly transformed and changed society.
To read more about the other speakers that presented at the 2018 In Good Company Conference click here.