Eckard Smuts

As South Africa sails deeper into turbulent economic waters, calls for improved collaboration between the public and the private sector grow ever more urgent. Finance minister Malusi Gigaba touched on the issue in Parliament recently, when he described better business-government relations as a crucial factor in government’s drive to include millions of poverty-stricken South Africans in the economy.

While there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of the ANC-led government’s new found enthusiasm for broad-based economic change, it happens that the finance minister’s wish for closer co-operation between the public and the private sector coincides with a rising trend in businesses worldwide to pursue partnerships outside their normal spheres of operation.

Such cross-sector partnerships are usually driven by multiple factors. Occasionally, the challenges that companies face are too big or complex to take on by themselves. Sometimes they may not have the required skills or resources to tackle a specific problem, or they may simply want to spread the risks involved in doing so. Enhanced efficiency – and the avoidance of duplication – are other recognised benefits of collaborating across multiple sectors to solve problems.

More recently, businesses in South Africa have begun to wake up to the reality that cross-sector partnerships may be a crucial investment in their own future prosperity. Justin Smith, the Group Head of Sustainability at Woolworths, puts it succinctly when he describes the work Woolworths has been doing with farming communities near Ceres in the Western Cape to improve the quality of water in the catchment areas.

“It’s very simple,” says Smith. “If we still want to be selling fruit ten years from now, we need to find ways of working with multiple stakeholders to ensure a consistent, good-quality water supply.”

Smith was talking at a meeting of the Network for Business Sustainability South Africa (NBS-SA) hosted by the UCT Graduate School of Business last month. While there was much nodding and agreement among participants that collaborative engagement between organisations in different sectors – and even between different businesses in the same sector – is essential for boosting sustainability initiatives, the conversation often turned to the challenges that such partnerships bring.

For starters, people may have very different ideas about what the partnership they have entered into means. Vanessa Otto-Mentz, Head of Group Strategy at Santam, explains the importance of managing expectations during a recent collaborative project they ran with the Eden District Municipality aimed at mitigating the risks of fire and flooding in local communities.  

“People often think we have all these facilities and resources, but we don’t,” she says. “It’s rather about asking the right questions, or about helping the municipality to prioritise. In some sense it’s more of a managerial intervention – we tried to help the municipality to take responsibility for its own risk management programme.”

At the same time, however, companies should be careful not to foist their expertise on unsuspecting collaboration partners. Brigitte Burnett, Head of Sustainability at Nedbank, cautions that a paternalistic attitude can lead to severe distrust among the different parties involved in a cross-sector partnership. In a recent project aimed at developing financial acumen among the local populace in Magaliesburg, she says, Nedbank took care to partner with an investment team on the ground that was already well-connected to the community, in order reduce the risk of paternalism.

Another issue that frequently crops up is the problem of implementing the sustainability goals that often drive cross-sector collaboration within a company's existing corporate structure. Reflecting on some of the challenges they have experiencied in an agricultural partnership with local communities in AmaMpondo district in the Eastern Cape, Martie Steyn, Senior Communications Specialist at AngloGold Ashanti, explains that it can be very difficult to determine in a practical sense what role such initiatives should play in company policy. Is it merely supportive, or is it an integral part of the company's business strategy?

Even if CEOs and COOs increasingly see the value of pursuing sustainability initiatives through cross-sector partnerships, it is no simple matter to translate that value into the everyday operational activities of a business.

Fortunately, promising new tools are being developed that can help companies to move on from an outdated view of sustainability as compliance, and closer to a practice that integrates sustainability-driven partnerships as a core element in business strategy. 

One such tool is based on the work of the Embedding Project, a public benefit research project that uses cutting-edge social science and modelling techniques to help companies identify the most efficient ways to embed sustainability practices in their operations.

“Our model allows companies to figure out where they can have the biggest impact, at the lowest cost,” says Stephanie Bertels, a Canadian academic and founder of the Embedding Project. Bertels, who is also a member of the Network for Business Sustainability, feels strongly that a shift in emphasis to context-driven sustainability can lead to significant benefits for companies. “We’re showing companies how they can set the narrative in such a way that it makes sense to both the business, and the communities they’re partnering with,” she explains.

Despite numerous potential pitfalls, then, it seems there may indeed be some scope for collaborations between the public and the private sector to bear fruit locally.

Stephen Elliott-Wetmore, Manager for Corporate Partnerships and Innovation at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa (WWF), reveals that the CEOs of South African companies have a reputation for their willingness to engage with NGOs and other stakeholders beyond the strict ambit of their business practices. And these kinds of engagement are precisely what is needed to reinvent the relationship between business and the public wellbeing that our country so sorely requires.

Cross-sector partnerships are vital mechanisms for developing innovative responses to shared problems, says Ralph Hamann, Academic Director of NBS-SA and a Professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business. 

But it is also crucial to remind ourselves that there are no short cuts to innovation. It is, rather, something that emerges when we take the time to grapple with the many, seemingly intractable differences among all those with a stake in a particular situation or environment.

And in the case of South Africa, that means all of us, regardless of whether we think of ourselves as belonging to the public or the private sector. Smuts is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Environmental Humanities at the University of Stellenbosch.