Having businesses is a critical good.

Then SA companies do a lot more – for human rights

By Paul Pereira

Although there’s a lot of attention paid to human rights in SA, it mostly focusses on the rights of citizens vs. the state, and rarely on responsibilities coming with these rights. Even less is the spotlight on companies as citizens, and how they act in nation building. But there is a lot that they do; more than might be thought; and there are good reasons why they do this – because they are South Africans too.

SA’s constitution is often called the “best in the world”, and maybe it is. It’s certainly different to most, if not all, others, in its approach to rights.

Essentially, SA goes further in this in the sheer scale of rights enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and in who they apply to. Not only do we protect citizens from a potentially Big Brother state in things like freedom of speech and from torture, but we extend claims on broader society for “access” to housing and education and equality, etc.

Then we apply these “horizontally” too. To simplify quite complex and ever-developing constitutional law, the relationship between rights in the supreme law of our land isn’t just between citizen and government, but between citizens to each other too. I can enforce a right to human dignity when government encroaches it, for example; but I can enforce it against another private citizen who encroaches it too.

That scope and depth in the applicability of the Bill of Rights is unusual. But is it true, then, that all our rights (29 different types in SA) also carry concomitant responsibilities, as is often claimed?

We aren’t actually given technical responsibilities with our rights, because we are presumed to be born with our rights innately. Indeed, the constitution avoids dealing with responsibilities we might have, and even government has only ever really tried once, back in 2011, to push the concept of rights equalling responsibilities to school children, using a charter training them to try promote the rights of their peers.

Lawyers can argue about how many angels are on the head of the rights-and-responsibilities pin, but common sense says that we do indeed have responsibilities to each other if we are to make our rights practically real. And, of course, citizens in this case includes corporate citizenship, companies as juristic persons.

That’s because businesses are, more or less, just collections of people, engaged willy-nilly in nation building. “Business” is really just about people freely getting together to make and sell and buy stuff to better their lives.

For the common good, all employed people contribute part of their earnings to broader society through taxes. But many go beyond this.

Here, companies-as-citizens go beyond the inherent good of their very existence to helping build SA through corporate social investment, enterprise development, skill development programmes, employee benefits in housing and bursaries, community social and labour plans (mining and alternative energy sectors), industry transformation charters, Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment codes of conduct (with the dti), King Committee codes of the Institute of Directors, national “pacts” on schooling, procurement, skills, and a green economy”, in programmes of employee community volunteering work, and more besides.

It’s a lot, an effort often in support of the National Development Plan’s call for business to be “active citizens”, something summed up by Brand SA as “the responsibility, and opportunity, for South Africans to engage with and among themselves” (my emphasis).

Or, as Business Leadership SA chairman Bobby Godsell noted at 2015’s annual Nation Builder “In Good Company” conference in Pretoria: “A successful society depends as much on the quality of its citizens as it does on that of its leaders. This includes a particular kind of citizen: the company, or corporate, citizen”.

Indeed, from this broad effort of ordinary South Africans, whether public or private sector, does a fractured country grow into a nation at peace with itself. It’s the project of us all, and it is working.

  • Pereira runs WHAM! Media, a partner of the private sector Nation Builder initiative (proudnationbuilder.co.za). This article first published by the Pretoria News, as Nation Builder’s weekly “In Good Company” column, 22 March 2017.

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