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Jay Naidoo Speaks about Conscious Companies

Business Report
WE'VE reached the boiling point in our country. As the fires of discontent sweep across it our leaders are literally “playing the fiddle while our country burns.”

The flame of hope kindled in 1994 under the ethical and courageous leadership of our founding father of our democracy, President Nelson Mandela, is being doused by greed.

Public office is no longer seen as the service to our citizenry and country, but as a business opportunity for those in power, their families and a crony economic and political elite.

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Keynote speaker Jay Naidoo at the Conscious Companies Awards. Naidoo said in his address delivered at the event that business has to decide whether it is prepared to play a new role in shaping the future for this country.Photo: Nokuthula Mbatha

Transform

We have forgotten that the guiding principle of South Africa’s Constitution requires the democratic state to use public resources and the annual budget process as a redistributive mechanism to truly transform our highly unequal society.

To do this is to bring the bottom up, not take the top higher.

Today we live in a democracy in which social justice and human dignity is at the heart of our Constitution. We have a right to meet here today, to organise ourselves and to speak our minds.

We live in a country where democracy is undermined daily as fourteen million people go to bed hungry, one in four is unemployed and one in three living a survivalist existence on social grants.

The "political miracle" of the 20th century in 1994 is seen as meaningless by millions of fellow South Africans.

That’s why I have returned to where I have started my political life, working with evicted farmworkers in the eastern Free State, co-creating a future based on sustainable, thriving and resilient villages building models of socially useful work, producing socially useful goods and services based on community driven livelihoods in agriculture and other enterprises.

At the same time, we live in a rapidly changing world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, unpredictability and fluidity.

The technological revolution of the last two decades had fundamentally changed the world we live in. In particular, it has changed the work and nature of production and growth.

Materialistic

Short-termism has become our mantra - how to satisfy our self-indulgence and individual drive for consumption and accumulation. The consequence is the rise of right-wing populism across the developed world.

The developing world is not doing any better. I sit on the board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the premier African foundation promoting excellence in good governance and leadership on our continent.

Our 2016 report, based on real data, concluded that almost two-thirds of African citizens live in a country in which safety and rule of law have deteriorated in the last 10 years.

In our backyard, we see such armed conflict growing in Mozambique, the DRC and exploding into civil war further north in South Sudan and Libya.

This is the environment within which business must learn to lead in the journey of human evolution and business leaders must learn to heed the call for transformation and growth coming from society, from their stakeholders, from their employees and from within themselves.

This is relevant for us in South Africa, where in the context of failing state especially at a local level we have to rise to the challenge as civil society and citizens.

For a nation to flourish companies must participate and evolve to become conscious and adopt a spirit of co-operative partnership, address societal imbalances, increase productivity and efficiency, maintain transparency, accountability and governance. They must become a Conscious Company.

New term

I have encountered a new term - ecority in my journey. It is a belief that all life is sacred; and that it is our collective responsibility to protect the rights of all living things on the Earth. Ecority sets new standards for what it means to be human - standards to which all human activities, especially economic production and consumption, need to adhere.

The case for ecority is overwhelmingly persuasive, and on so many different levels. It can no longer be ignored. Customers are acutely aware of this. Regulators and activists avidly monitor corporate behaviour as never before. Employees demand ecority as the trade-off for giving their ideas, time and labour to the enterprise.

Over the past few centuries, the world’s developed nations have plundered the resources of the planet, creating a situation where there is quite literally no alternative. We live in an ecological emergency where climate change is already driving conflicts and wars in competition over scarce recourses such as land, water and food.

Borrowing it

I am reminded of an old native American proverb - “We do not inherit our Mother Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from or children.” When will our generation understand what is enough, how many homes, cars, things we can own?

Most people recognise that every decision and action we take must now observe the principle of ecority, for without it we are set on an inevitable trajectory of global destruction. A collective system, and organisations, can no longer sustain the idea of individual leaders as change agents. The solution is to embrace a collective ethical leadership rooted in consciousness, and returning to the first principles of humankind.

We need to accept the reality that our organisation and ethos is to embrace the principles of flexibility, adaptability, diversity, fluidity, ambivalence and ambiguity in our world.

Leadership can best be described as situational, temporary and non-binding; effectively meaning that, the people lead themselves for most of the time. Leaders are guides leading from behind, the middle and from the front when needed.

Implicit in the new mode of business is the principle of reciprocity. Our earliest ancestors in our cradle of humanity, the Bushmen prevented lying by being transparent. They prevented stealing by sharing what they have. They prevented conflict by being inter-dependent. They prevented competition by sharing all knowledge.

We have to foster authenticity; confront conformity; introduce wider perspectives; think the unthinkable; groom future leaders with the wisdom of consciousness.

Our democracy comes with responsibilities to each other and to the future generations. We do not, and can never, represent the sum total of all history.

Our Constitution, deep in its heart, embraces the principles of social justice and human dignity and gives us rights.

And yet, more than 23 years later, we have to tackle privilege and the rise of inequality. We have to fix a broken system of governance.

While there are many challenges that face us in our country, I caution especially the next generation not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have worked in many failed states where millions are still displaced, where rape is a weapon of war, and where recovery from war takes decades. Let us not go there.

It’s not where the majority of our people want to go. If you want to save the country, don’t destroy it and then leave this to the next generation to rebuild, because it may never happen.

Business has to decide whether it is prepared to play the new role in shaping the future. As your own mantra has spoken: The conscious business revolution has begun.

Conscious Companies is a South African organisation that is focused on building the value of business through business values.

As our founding father of our democracy once said: “A good leader is one with a good head and a good heart.”

This is the edited address delivered by Jay Naidoo at the Conscious Companies awards.

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