Sasol’s Nolitha Fakude: the business community must support initiatives that counter xenophobia

Nolitha Fakude, Executive Vice President of Sasol, tells Tim Modise that the business community must adopt an enlightened self interest and support initiatives that counter xenophobia. She also says the pace of women empowerment in the workplace is slow due to weak political will in the government and business sectors to drive transformation aggressively.

Nolitha Fakude, the Executive Vice President of Sasol is talking to us about the event that Sasol hosted, together with the South African Council of Churches. Tell me about the importance of business partnering with the South African Council of Churches.

Tim, the importance of business partnering with the South African Council of Churches is that we are saying, as business, we have employees who come from various communities and for us, as business, we also need to have inclusion and diversity issues raised appropriately within the workplace. Therefore, the Council of Churches is the platform and the facilitator that can champion for us the issues around inclusion, of all South African citizens and non-South Africans into our communities.

Tell me, I mean the South African businesses that operate all over the world, especially on the Continent, were they adversely affected by the xenophobic violence that we saw?

Businesses, South African businesses who operate in the Continent and in the rest of the world, we are affected in two ways. Firstly, reputational because remember, these are colleagues we are talking about and these are people that, on a day-to-day basis, we as South African businesses have said, we want to invest in your countries. Therefore, please embrace us, as we come to invest, so that is the reputational side.

At a second level, it was more where some of our own South African employees, who work in those countries, their lives were, actually put in jeopardy because of what was happening at home. Therefore, in some instances, we had to evacuate South African employees, who work in those countries, and bring them back home to South Africa, until the situation had calmed down.

The response is a bit big and very serious, from my point of view, but to include the war on poverty, as one of the messages that we heard about this morning. It looks like it’s going to be an expanded problem and it is bigger than what one imagined it to be, as a response to xenophobia. Do you think that the Council of Churches, in partnership with business, will succeed in helping to reduce levels of poverty in South Africa?

We have said it is important to understand why did, the xenophobic attacks take place because by understanding why they happened, then we can be able to put in place the right interventions. Obviously, one of the key messages and themes that keeps coming through is that there is an issue around unemployment and also poverty issues, within the community, and where people have got a sense that the non-South Africans are actually here to take their jobs.

For us, working with the South African Council of Churches, we felt that a broader dialogue and debate needs to be held, with all stakeholders, business, government, civil society, to not only understand what has happened but rather to have programs that can be put in place for long-term sustainability. As we heard this morning, the issues that we have to deal with, it is not only materially, around poverty that is no food, but also it’s around really going to the psyche and the mindset of people, South Africans and non-South Africans, when we talk about these issues.

But then many South Africans will tell you that, yes, we do have the problem around xenophobia but we even have deeper problems, and that’s why we’re talking about poverty now, but there are triple problems, right, as they are called. The challenges in the country of inequality, unemployment, and poverty. What is your view about where we are now, and given the latest results or data that was released by the Statistics South Africa, that unemployment is increasing and, of course, that in itself has a bearing on levels of poverty?

Tim, it is very clear that the war against poverty and the unemployment that South Africa is facing, it’s a long-term challenge that we have. Hence, we have to look at two issues. One) Programs and interventions that are sustainable, whatever those programs are, and wherever they come from. But two) and more importantly, to make sure that there’s integration of all initiatives.

Government is doing lots of work around social safety programs I call them the Social Safety Programs, in terms of your Social Grants, housing and other initiatives. Business, on the other hand, tries to create jobs but, again, you cannot only leave it to business only (to create jobs). You have to look at civil society and also the formal and informal entrepreneurs, to come to the party.

The whole issue around dealing with the issue and the challenge of poverty in our country is that it is going to be a long-term initiative and we have to think about it, from a sustainable perspective and in a long-term perspective.

One other issue I wanted to raise is that this is not a uniquely South African problem because the global economic challenges are out there. Then the issue around skills mobility, from one country to the other, whether we are in Africa or whether you are in Europe, or you are in the States, you will find that the jobs become less and therefore, the issues around people fighting for the fewer resources is actually going to be out there. We have to really, think very smartly around how we deal with this issue.

Now, into the mix of high unemployment rate, there is an argument that we need to focus more on economic growth and we should delay other programs, such as BBBEE and so forth. That they should not be a priority for us now. That the priority should be that of economic growth. Now, recently Government announced the new BBBEE Codes, and that is why many people or some people rather, are arguing against that being a priority. What are your views?

Growing the economy is important but to grow the economy sustainably is also critical and, in South Africa, you cannot talk about sustainability growing this, this economy, without the participation of the majority of the population, and the majority of the population is black people. So BEE is meant to be part of that economic transformation and development initiative that Government is using, to be able to include the people who were previously not part of the economy.

Obviously, we have to think about BEE, and growing the economy in a way that’s asking the question ‘are we growing the cake to be much bigger, rather than just spreading a small cake amongst too many people’? The economic growth is important as well as the participation of the majority of the population of South Africans, which is black people.

Have we made progress in that regard, of Black Economic Empowerment? I mean, we’ve heard of these charters before. Some have come to the conclusion, the ‘ten year agreements’ have been concluded, and there seems to be arguments and disagreements on what exactly was achieved. What’s your view about the pace of transformation?

Tim, the transformation is a journey. It’s not an event, and when I look back to where we were at, as a country, 21 years ago, around the whole issue of transformation, and look back to where we are today. The glass for me is half-full. It is not half-empty. There have been areas where we have begun to see more people, black middle class, grow up, for example, and the growth of the black middle class has happened because of transformation and transformation is around the Broader Black Economic Empowerment issues, because it’s around management representation. It’s around ownership. It’s around black people being able to access procurement opportunities and becoming entrepreneurs.

To a certain extent, that has happened but, again still it’s not where it should be and it could be and some of the reasons why it’s not where it should be. It’s because the political wheel of business, as well as Government, in certain instances, when it comes to procurement, has not fully equated to action and delivering the inclusion of black people, and young people, and women in particular, in terms of the transformation.

But an argument can be made that you are an example of women empowerment, Black Women Empowerment, for that matter, and using you as a role model, as an example. The argument would be that you symbolise the large number of women who are entering top positions within companies.

Tim, I think it’s important that we recognise and acknowledge symbolic role models. However, in terms of the population demographics, 21 years later, we need more, critical mass. My view is that we have really different, in different sectors, role models who are there women as well as men, but there are not enough. You need a critical mass, so that we do not still, in 2015, talk about ‘the first woman this’ or ‘the only black this’ in South Africa.

For me, that’s an indictment that we still have to talk about those kinds of issues. I think it is important, therefore, that most of us who are having these opportunities, to be in the positions as role models, not only become role models but also actively change the status quo. To enable others to come through, so that in the next ten to 20 years, we do not have to talk about this situation, where there are only a handful of women or black people around.

Thank you very much for talking to us.

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