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Businesses have a role to play in relieving social tension and conflict
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 16/11/2021

​​In divided societies, businesses tend to entrench winning and losing groups, and thus increase inter-group friction, tensions, conflict and social incohesion.

This was one of the viewpoints of Prof Brian Ganson from the University of Stellenbosch Business School in his recent inaugural lecture (9 November 2021). The topic of his address was Is it a private sector? The impact of business actors on social conflict.

Ganson said the mechanisms by which business actors increase social divisions are often tied to pathways of private sector development and privileging a few whiles excluding the many.


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“Private sector development that does not explicitly engage and address inter-group inequalities and power contestation drives social division and undermines human development.

“Many individual business strategies, leader behaviours and operational decisions create tensions that exacerbate social divisions and undermine citizens' efforts to come together. This happens when a company takes advantage of bad or distant relationships between different groups in society. They often deal separately with different stakeholders to strike better deals for themselves.

“In South Africa we see mining companies dealing separately with national, provincial, local and traditional authorities. These strategies increase conflict between citizens and their government and between different groups in society."

Ganson added that companies often align themselves with those who are already powerful, while ignoring the poor and the disenfranchised.

“Buying uniforms slightly more cheaply abroad saves money for the company but increases local economic insecurity in ways that increase competition and tension between struggling groups. We see this in the xenophobic violence in the townships.

“Dragging out solutions of longstanding land claims leave people who lived from that land without a reliable source of food, increasing their reliance on the criminal economy. Giving contracts and benefits to sympathetic local leaders increases tension in communities."

Ganson said that by acting in these ways, companies often get what they want, but they further divide societies in ways that escalate conflict and make social problems even harder to solve.

“The sum of business strategies and actions, at least in conflict-affected contexts, may work for the companies involved, but deliver sub-optimal outcomes from the perspective of social cohesion and the ability of people to solve problems across identity-group boundaries."

According to Ganson, companies are rarely willing to invest in skills and capabilities they need to understand and address incohesion. They are also often reluctant to allow others to influence their strategies and operational decisions.

He said companies that apply frameworks of do-no-harm, conflict-sensitive business practices and human rights due diligence are far less likely to have a negative impact on society.

“Moving fast and breaking things is not a strategy for social cohesion and peaceful change. It would be far better for the rest of us if companies bring all the parties to the table to analyse a particular situation together and find common ground on a pathway forward.

“Too many incumbent major business actors simply do not want to, and with their current business models, could not survive in a world in which the rest of us came together to demand just and peaceful development for all," Ganson added.