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Social Justice Conference and Summit inspire collaboration and solutions for pressing problems
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 27/10/2023

​Business and civil society have a role and responsibility regarding advancing social justice, though such role is less onerous than that of governments. This was the conclusion reached at the end of the 5th International Social Justice Conference and Summit held at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town on 11 and 12 October 2023, respectively.

The event was hosted by the Centre for Social Justice at Stellenbosch University (SU) under the leadership of the Law Trust Chair, Prof Thuli Madonsela.  

The events sought to reflect on the role of business and civil society in advancing social justice, to take stock of current good practices and to identify opportunities for strengthening synergies and scaling.

The events also sought to identify gaps that need to be addressed to accelerate the pace of ending poverty and breaking the back of structural inequality in ways that make the second half of implementing the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a more impactful phase.

This urgency was influenced by noting the United Nations's (UN) announcement that only 17% of SDGs had been achieved by the midpoint earlier this year and that Goal 10, which is about reducing inequality, was one of those in which progress was slow with some countries backsliding. Other SDGs that are central to social justice and that the Conference and Summit were concerned about included Goal 1 (ending poverty); Goal 2 (hunger); Goal 5 (gender equality); Goal 23 (climate change) and Goal 16 (peace and strong institutions). 

At the start of the Conference and Summit, there were a few voices that expressed doubt regarding the accountability of business and civil society for advancing social justice, but by the end of each day there was no opposition to the conclusion that these two private sector constituencies had a role in shared responsibility for advancing social justice in families, workplaces, business dealings, societal spaces, and public governance.  

The participants, drawn primarily from academia, business, and the non-profit sector and hailing from as far as the United Kingdom and Belgium, noted that business and civil society entities were already playing pivotal roles in fostering equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms, as social justice dictates. Examples shared by among others  Madonsela in her keynote address, included the role played by business in the Treaty of Versailles that gave birth to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and its firm mandate to advance social justice in the economy.  

“In my view private sector responsibility and accountability has three dimensions, being a legal responsibility, moral responsibility, and pragmatism, or strategic considerations, all of which are elements of shared humanity or Ubuntu. International and domestic laws impose certain obligations regarding the advancement of social justice primarily through prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination. A few international and domestic laws impose obligations to advance de facto or substantive equality in workplaces, education, health services, the economy and sharing of natural resources such as land. The moral responsibility may derive from restitutive duty for beneficiaries of generational injustices, while pragmatism and strategic considerations are about eliminating structural inefficiencies that impede economic growth while driving fracture and undermining peace," Madonsela said. 

She noted that the Conference was taking place as the world commemorates 75 years of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights yet peace, which the human rights instruments sought to anchor, remains elusive, while wars are a reality in several parts of the world.

Madonsela commenced with the following poignant remarks: “We commence this International Conference on Social Justice amid various human tragedies that the architects of the Treaty of Versailles, UN Charter and Universal Declaration on Human Rights thought were never to be experienced by humanity again. The architects of these multilateral cooperation and normative standard setting instruments thought that by investing in justice, including social justice, peace would be humanity's reward and that war and its odious cruelties would be history." 

Moderated by prominent media and legal expert Songezo Mabece, the Conference and Summit deliberations covered issues such as corruption, labour practices, legal empowerment, entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, food insecurity, land equity, access to justice, gender-based violence, education, and health, including mental health.

In his opening address SU Rector and Vice Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers drew a link between this year's theme focusing on the role of business and civil society in advancing social justice and SU's slogan 'Forward Together'. “This Conference and Summit are putting these words into action by bringing together different role players in business and civil society and finding a way forward while joining forces. Without input and buy-in from both these sectors, efforts to promote social justice will not succeed," De Villiers cautioned. 

The event highlighted the need for businesses to collaborate with key knowledge producers in civil society to ensure practical action is underpinned by sound theoretical reasoning.

At the Conference, Prof Sibusiso Moyo, SU's Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, provided background to the role of universities in economic development and the importance of innovation in the pursuit of social justice. The challenge for those active in the social justice field at higher education institutions in South Africa is to understand to what extent they can influence the political landscape, policymaking and the allocation of resources while also dealing with the negative impact of corruption, Moyo said. She also stressed the importance of partnerships and encouraged the business community to become more actively involved in the financial support of students. 

History has shown us that peaceful and inclusive societies do not happen haphazardly, remarked Prof Nicola Smit, Dean of the Faculty of Law at SU, in her welcoming message. “Rather sometimes, it is the outcome of exceptional and intentional processes, normative standards, values and interventions of a wide range of societal actors – or one could say that social justice is realised in the legal creation and maintenance of just social institutions and importantly, relationships." 

Keynote speakers

In his keynote address business leader Moeletsi Mbeki, who took conference participants on an odyssey of the role business played in the manufacturing of inequality and poverty in South Africa, also concluded that business is in pole position to play a positive role in advancing social justice. He lambasted those who have governed since 1994 for failure to adopt policies that dismantle structural racial inequality. He accused them of opting for policies that assimilated them into existing structures. Mbeki also lamented the failure to restructure the economy into a manufacturing ecosystem as opposed to the consumerist outlook it has adopted. 

“It is in the interest of business to advance social justice, especially the welfare, health, and education of the poor. As you raise the human capital index, your economy becomes competitive," he said. 

The keynote address at the Social Justice Summit, delivered by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, John Jeffery, and Busisiwe Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, echoed similar sentiments. 

Jeffery's address focused on historical context, the legacy of apartheid, and the importance of social justice in addressing poverty and inequality. He highlighted the significance of October 9, which marked the 70th anniversary of the enactment of the Separate Amenities Act, a key apartheid law that enforced racial segregation. Jeffery emphasised that even though this Act has been repealed, its legacy still lingers in South Africa. Apartheid's spatial planning, infrastructure development disparities, education inequalities, and poverty are some of the lasting effects. He further stated that social justice demands equitable economic, political, and social rights and opportunities for everyone. 

Jeffery identified a trend that, instead of corporate social responsibility, consumers are increasingly looking for corporate social justice, defined as a complete social justice culture integrated with every aspect of the way a company functions. This kind of interdependency between organisations and society is captured by the concept of Ubuntu, he explained. “Ubuntu implies that there should be a common purpose to all human endeavours, including corporate endeavours, which is based on service to humanity. As a logical consequence of this interdependency, one person benefits by serving another." 

Businesses cannot operate in isolation from societal circumstances around them, Jeffery concluded. “They have to drive a social justice and human rights agenda. At the very heart of developing such a social justice agenda lies the recognition of our shared humanity and an acknowledgement that, ultimately, as human beings, other people have the same needs. Why would we deny other people the very same things which we would want for ourselves?" 

In her speech, Mavuso acknowledged the challenges facing the country, stressing that South Africa, 30 years into democracy, still grapples with deep-seated issues of poverty, inequality, and record unemployment. She emphasised that business, as the social partner with significant resources, must play a pivotal role in improving the nation's social and economic well-being. To this end, she discussed a collaborative initiative involving 130 CEOs from major businesses to work with the government on key issues.

“We're doing this because we realise that it is unsustainable for business to continue to be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty," Mavuso explained. She added that it is encouraging to witness the emergence of a pro-business ideological shift. “Private sector participation brings in the efficiencies that government needs to have, it puts in systems and processes in place that are lacking in government."  

Mavuso said social injustice is one the biggest risks that South Africa is facing. “From where we're sitting in business, we realise some issues are bigger than self-interest and profit. The problems we're facing in this country are not government problems. They are South Africa's problems." 

Change takes a long time, but it does happen, was the encouraging message from Kate Robertson, businesswoman and co-founder of One Young World as she cited the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice".

“We do an awful lot of talking about the things which confront us all over the world. But the voices of those who suffer injustice are simply drowned out by our talking. To deliver social justice means we must act," Robertson said. 

Focus on hunger over the next year

During the Summit Greg Munro, Director of Cities Alliance, a global partnership fighting urban poverty, pointed to the private sector, including small, medium, and micro enterprises, as a vital partner in tackling poverty and inequality. He said that the only way to achieve progress towards the SDGs was for national governments, civil society, large and small businesses, and communities to work in collaboration. 

In a hard-hitting session about SDG implementation in South Africa, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder and chairman of Gift of the Givers Foundation, related harrowing experiences of South Africans impacted by poverty. “Hunger is very normal in the Eastern Cape. Many children die from malnutrition," he said as he described a recent tragedy of a mother who killed her three children and committed suicide out of desperation that she could not feed her family.  

But Sooliman was quick to point out that blaming government for all societal ills will not bring us closer to a solution. “The government is not corrupt. There are corrupt people in our government. There are also many corrupt people in the private sector. What we need as a nation is morality, spirituality, values, and ethics. South Africa doesn't belong to the government, it belongs to more than 62 million South Africans. No matter what the problems are, the only way to fix this is together."

While Sooliman was very critical of inefficient government systems and bureaucracy, he also urged the business sector to play a bigger part in creating opportunities, especially for young people. “We need corporates to give kids a chance. Help them to get a foot in the door that will improve their self-esteem. Work gives people hope and dignity." 

Prof Stan du Plessis, CEO of SU, delivered the concluding remarks at the Summit and argued that social justice should start with the citizens and their rights and opportunities, rather than the rulers and their plans.

“When we lack social justice at the micro level, the level of households and individuals, we make the realisation of political and economic rights impossible. We need to restore, or in some cases establish the rights so we can have beneficial development with appropriate accountability. Rights are not a luxury that will be the outcome of economic development. Instead, rights are a crucial part of accountability that ensures beneficial progress in the first place in economic development."


Reflecting on the value of the Conference and Summit, Madonsela said that it was heartening to experience the considerable goodwill and acknowledgement from all sectors that social justice can be realised collaboratively.

“The Conference found that both internationally and domestically there's a lot of goodwill by business and civil society – from tackling hunger to issues such as land redistribution and business ownership inclusivity. There was consensus that businesses must shift their focus to also address societal challenges and foster an ecosystem that benefits society as a whole," Madonsela said. She also reported on the broad consensus reached on the fact that business and society do have a role in advancing social justice. She clarified that such roles transcend Corporate Social Responsibility or Investment and go to the core of business operations and practices. She gave an example of compliance with social justice dictates of labour and employment laws as well as company laws. She ultimately attributed the role of business and civil society to obligations arising from law, morality and strategic or pragmatic considerations that can be compared to Ubuntu principles. This concept of the role of business and society was accepted by the conference and summit.

Madonsela noted that it had been agreed that business and society needed to level up to meet consequent obligations and to seize opportunities presented by the second phase of the SDG agenda, COVID-19 recovery programmes and climate justice processes to accelerate progress on advancing social justice in and between societies. She also reported that the conference and summit had endorsed the Musa Plan for Social Justice and announced the collaborative focus for the year 2023-4.

“We agreed that in the coming year, our focus will be on hunger. We resolved to act collaboratively as business and civil society to advance social justice. Aided by the Musa Plan for Social Justice, a social justice accelerator that expediates progress towards SDGs, we will join hands to end hunger through research, strengthening of synergies and breaking new ground." 

Madonsela said the success of the Conference and Summit can also be attributed to the collaboration with Artscape that provided an inspirational backdrop to the deliberations.

“Our dynamic host at Artscape, CEO Dr Marlene le Roux, reminded us of the role that art can play in advancing social justice. We know the arts can play a role not just through levelling economic opportunities, but from a neuroscience point of view we know that we think in pictures and art can give us new insight into each other's humanity. Art can also give us a different picture on how we envision the future of our society." 

Social Justice Champion of the Year and Bridge Builder Award

  • Two prestigious prizes were awarded by the Centre for Social Justice at a reception after the conclusion of the International Conference on Social Justice. The Social Justice Champion of the Year Award was presented by Madonsela and Ashraf Garda, Founder of and Champion Spotter at Champion South Africa to Lorraine Khoza, an inspirational young woman who started a non-profit organisation in support of gender-based violence victims after suffering tremendous trauma as a rape survivor. The main aim of this award is to honour a South African that is making a positive difference to advance social justice. Khoza was honoured for turning the brutality of the injustice perpetrated against her into a powerful social justice movement.
    Last year Lorenzo Davids, a leader and veteran in the social development space, was celebrated as Social Justice Champion of the Year for his tireless community work and activism and in 2021 Dr Sooliman received the same honour.
    Khoza said she was overwhelmed when she heard the news. “I could not believe it. I burst into tears! To get such an award is so encouraging. It's such a massive honour to know I'm now a Social Justice Champion alumnus with amazing role models such as Dr Sooliman who also received the award. Getting this award has revived my spirit, it has affirmed me. I know that the work that we do is meaningful and impacting people's lives." 
  • A second award for a South African who is committed to promoting social cohesion was introduced at last year's Social Justice Summit. The Bridge Builder Award recognises a person who has achieved extraordinary heights in healing the divisions of the past by building social bridges across historically divided groups and communities.
    Madonsela and Garda presented this year's Bridge Builder Award to YearBeyond, a youth service partnership between the Western Cape government, The Community Chest of the Western Cape, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and various NGOs. It aims to provide unemployed youth (18 to 25-year-olds) with meaningful work experience and a pathway to further studies or work, while encouraging a culture of service to their community.
    The Bridge Builder Award was initiated in honour of the late Council of Social Justice Champions member, Dr Beatrice Wiid, who excelled in building bridges across communities divided by economic and historical racial disparities, in pursuit of social cohesion and peace. Partners for Possibility founded by Louise van Rhyn was awarded the 2022 inaugural Bridge Builder Award in recognition of its efforts to foster social cohesion in South Africa.

    Read the Conference Declaration and Summit Statement.