SWELLENDAM – During those widespread protest marches recently, I asked my son whether he was going to join one of them.
“It won’t make a difference,” he replied.
“But it will to you,” I said.
Few things are more powerful than a group of people actively and vigorously pursuing a noble cause. The outcome becomes a secondary issue. In that moment each gets to experience the fulfillment of embracing and being embraced by a community or group. It is the essence of inclusivity in a much broader and more relevant sense. While lofty, often purposeless debates and actions are formulated around structure, systems and policies; the real issue is missed – that it is about human behaviour. We are clearly in an era when the former have lost touch with the latter. That is the most pressing issue of our time.
Globally, inclusivity has been severely impeded by centralised political and economic power; technology increasingly replacing real human connection and productive effort, and a monetary and financial revolution that has deeply widened disparities in wealth and opportunities to the exclusion of many, especially the youth.
More intriguing is the extent to which inclusivity has begun to transcend and indeed overshadow traditional debate around left and right; capitalism and socialism, and other conflicting theories that have preoccupied humanity for centuries. Today it is about the “establishment” versus the “populace”: in itself an expression of whether people feel included or excluded, and ultimately questioning the legitimacy of power.
Governments’ role in enhancing inclusivity – or perhaps more accurately: rolling back exclusivity – is a key concern at ballot boxes and in the streets. It is a greater issue in South Africa than elsewhere. It’s a subject I covered in a previous article (see here) and still requires much unpacking. But it could be argued that government itself has been the biggest stumbling block to inclusivity through failures in service delivery, education and of course patronage, corruption and maladministration – to name just a few. Its current rhetoric is a deflection of blame and indeed counter-inclusive. It has created some dysfunctional paradoxes in promoting inclusivity through implied dispossession or exclusion of certain groups.
Business too has to do some soul-searching. It is by nature the most inclusive activity in free and open societies. With some deplorable exceptions, it serves society as consumers and customers. On average, it pays about half of its income to outside suppliers, creating multiples of opportunities for others. The remainder represents its own added value, or wealth created, and on average 45% goes to labour, 25% to government in the form of company and employee personal income tax, and 30% to profits. Put differently, for every R15 shareholders get, R140 goes to the pockets of employees and government – a ratio of nearly 2½ to 1. (See Contribution Account here.)
Disturbing the delicate composition of that activity could have disastrous consequences. But that does not mean that it should not seriously review racial imbalances, particularly in top management which is only 15% black, and largely attributable to executive exclusivity. (See here.)
My criticism of business has always been that it does not fully understand, recognise, promote and act out its inclusive nature. It has defined itself narrowly as an exclusive servant of shareholder interest and, despite King IV prescriptions, expresses itself in a profit/cost rather than a wealth creation/distribution format. Its accounting is not inclusive. (See inclusive accounting here.) Too often this leads to misbehaviour, customer neglect, uncompetitive activities, and an absence of a moral compass.
It then also discourages common purpose and common fate principles and full involvement by all stakeholders, especially labour, in the destiny of an enterprise. The net result is a warped public image, broken hearts in the workplace and easy prey to business-unfriendly rhetoric including that implied in radical economic transformation. (See article “The untold story” here.)
The people, however, hold ultimate power. Relying on systems, structures, policies and politics discourages and denies the overwhelming role that individual behaviour plays in inclusiveness. Economic growth itself is an unknown, and speaks to only one part of inclusivity: employment. It’s an important part, but ignores the fact that many of the employed still feel excluded and the number that could be rescued from unemployment is questionable. Inclusivity should not be viewed solely as an outcome of economic growth, but rather as a factor contributing to it.
One does not need a message from the pulpit to identify many areas where we can act more inclusively. It brings to mind Edmund Burke’s immortal aphorism:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. But the message does not mean only confronting evil. It also means simply spreading good as a counter to evil.
Probably more threatening than standing by and doing nothing, is doing something and no one knowing about it. That creates the darkness where evil flourishes and politicians play their dirty games. There are many, many activities in South Africa (government included) that simply belie the notion that inclusivity is not being actively pursued. Apart from thousands of individuals daily reaching out to others, there are corporate social responsibility projects; many social entrepreneur activities; very active NGOs, NPOs and charities; church activities; and private sector projects, that on balance have probably done far more than government itself – apart perhaps from the social grant. One that deserves mention is agriculture, where farming groups have done much to effectively empower people – arguably more than what could be achieved with land grabs. (See project list here.)
That more can, and should be done by all of us is an imperative, and a counter to coercion and autocracy. Inclusivity is a manifestation and embracing of our humanity. It is an embrace of empowerment and enablement. We cannot allow petty politics to contaminate it; ideologues to warp it; megalomaniacs to abuse it; academics to distort it; economists to disparage it and media to ignore it.
It is the ultimate human project. It’s when individual hearts become a collective shelter from despair.