Nompendulo Mkatshwa in conversation with Ms Shaeera Kalla and Mr Shafee Verachia
For the past couple of years there has been an up-roar by young people on various social media platforms about the ‘missing of the plot’ of corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives during Nelson Mandela Month which is aligned to Nelson Mandela Day. Nelson Mandela Day, commonly known as “Mandela Day”, is an annually commemorated international day in honour of Nelson Mandela. The day falls on the birthday of the former president and society is encouraged to display, in various ways, an act of service for a minimum of 67 minutes.
The up-roar stems from a view that CSI initiatives during the month are often a belittling of the very same people these initiatives aim to assist. The critics state that the initiatives do not address the core issues that societies are truly faced with and that the initiatives are like placing a plaster on a wound. Essentially saying that the initiatives are ineffective and unsustainable, these views lead some of us into discussion on whether or not corporates have truly come to realize the importance of CSI initiatives or if the execution of these initiatives is simply ensuring a tick on the annual “to-do-list”?
Some of us continue to wonder if there is truly any deeply concerted effort to do thorough research on the needs of the communities these corporates target for their initiatives. After meeting a number of young people making incredible impacts in society at the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Inclusive Growth Forum in Drakensburg I thought it would be meaningful to engage them on this topic. With my view being that it is important to ensure that we balance problem-identification with problem-solution, I then had a conversation with two brilliant young minds from The Mbegu Platform – Ms Shaeera Kalla and Mr Shafee Verachia – problematizing CSI initiatives, yet also sharing some ideas based on their own initiatives on how CSI can be more effective and sustainable.
1. What are your thoughts on the general approach taken on Mandela Day?
The celebration of the legacy of one of our icons and heroes, President Nelson Mandela, is very important and critical to nation building. More than just celebrating him though, there is a need for us as South Africans to appreciate his legacy holistically. The problem with Mandela Day is that it has become a trivial celebration and brainwashing exercise for us to forget certain aspects of his legacy.
This is most evident in how the legacy of the young Mandela is conveniently ignored. This is centered-around the intellectual professional, the rural boy, the rebel, the revolutionary who was inspired to action by societal problems. In our whitewashing of the Mandela legacy we have constrained, restricted and choked the spaces for young people to go about solving societal problems in the way that he did. This is perhaps the greatest insult to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
2. Are the social media critiques on CSI initiatives justified?
CSI has taken on a compliance focus. Corporates merely cooperate to tick certain boxes by which their social investment is measured. There is no real desire or imagination to dream and conceptualize a new reality in a disruptive, inclusively innovative and inventive way.
This is something we want to turn on its head because in South Africa more than R8-billion is spent on CSI yet one cannot tangibly see this impact, and whether it is changing the reality of the most marginalized.
3. What about the view of one doing their little bit, and every little bit being meaningful?
The problem of this siloed-approach is that it perpetuates existing class, public-private and geospatial divides. Furthermore this approach leads to a duplication of certain things and an exclusion of other things. More worrying is that the decision on what to exclude often ignores what is needed by communities the most; due to the exclusive nature of decision-making organic knowledge and the intuitive understanding of social problems by communities is often ignored.
We believe that the scarcest resource in South Africa is not money; but a lack of coordinated-collaboration on common enlightened interests.
4. Tell us about Mbegu, the team and what Mbegu does?
Three months ago, a group of like-minded, young, talented change-makers resolved to do something about the exclusion of the marginalized youth from solving pressing societal issues. South Africans under the age of 35 make up 66% of the population; however we have seen young people being increasingly relegated to the periphery when it comes to solving pressing societal problems.
The Mbegu team is a group of talented young minds all under the age of 30 with skills including but not limited to artificial intelligence, actuarial science, law, and political economy. More importantly it is a group of like-minded individuals with an impatient and urgent desire for social change in South African communities.
The Mbegu Platform revolutionises the way in which digital tools are used to solve social problems. It’s a place where ideas meet and develop by linking idea generators with the skills, capabilities, networks and resources to see their ideas through to fruition. We have three main focuses, firstly we believe in a bottom-up approach where communities and individuals are at the center; secondly we believe that the Johannesburg- and Cape Town- centric nature of the incubation space needs to be challenged, hence we have a strong focus on bridging geospatial divides, lastly we want to create an ecosystem where there is a balance between social impact and economic prosperity.
We dream of a better future, a dignified future, a future many gave up their lives for.
5. How does Mbegu go about enhancing social entrepreneurship?
There is an early stage funding gap in South Africa despite an increase in corporate support. This early stage in the incubation space is called ideation. Most people do not fund ideation because they want to be able to get short term outputs, whether it is for CSI or Enterprise Supplier Development (ESD) or other corporate incentives. But even beyond a gap in funding ideation, support is available but it is fragmented and more geared towards growth than development.
We believe there is a need for better coordination between initiatives with a focus on NGOs, foundations, academic institutions, investors, government, and corporations. This coordinated collaboration would maximise social impact particularly for rural youth and women who have been grossly neglected and excluded.
6. What is Mbegu currently working on?
Since founding The Mbegu Platform three months ago and registering just a few weeks ago the team has significantly researched and found gaps in the incubation space, conducted a macro analysis and studied digital collaboration platform designs.
The founders have recruited other skilled young professionals with shared interests and a desire for change. The team has also conceptualised and designed a disruptive digital solution aimed at inverting the existing models in this space. An IT team has been established aimed at delivering the project from a digital infrastructure perspective, Mbegu has received endorsements from a diverse set of organisations, foundations and entrepreneurs, and a roadmap for delivery detailing the different stages’ needs has been identified. This includes an IT development and community socialisation perspective. We plan on piloting projects and have a thorough, well-researched and grounded business case to support the next phase in this process and probably the most exciting; execution.
Lastly, in speaking to the effectiveness and sustainability of The Mbegu Platform, we do not want to go around asking for funding every year. We very much would like to be self-sufficient in the medium to long run. The tricky part is that ideation is a long game. We are exploring a number of funding models to ensure that we can balance social impact with economic prosperity.
Kalla and Verachia further stated that part of changing the approach used by corporates in CSI initiatives speaks to society asking critical questions like:
“Why it is acceptable for a young professional’s contribution to CSI being to paint a school or bake cupcakes when this talented young person has skills and capabilities that can be used to develop an idea or solve a community problem?”
It is clear through this conversation that the critiques are not always unfounded and thus there is a loop-hole in the CSI system. All is however not lost if corporates can get into critical conversations and co-operation with young minds such as The Mbegu Platform. What becomes central to my take-home from this conversation is the view that the excessive meaningless tossing of money into communities is not going to help either government or the private sector. There needs to be deliberate, calculated collaborative action plan.
‘If you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go far go together.’
By Nompendulo Mkatshwa, a BSc Geography Graduate from University of the Witwatersrand, PGCE Candidate University of South Africa, Former President Student Representative Council Wits, Former South African Students Congress Chairperson at Wits and Former Deputy Chairperson of Wits ANC Youth League.
Nompendulo Mkatshwa is a regular Polity columnist.