This morning as I woke up from dreams about peach slices, jelly, custard and Choice Assorted biscuits, I came across a blog post that made me want to throw up food that I had not even eaten yet. In the post Goodwill Ambassador of the CEO SleepOut, Yusuf Abramjee, claims that the “CEO SleepOut is but one example of business going beyond the CSI tick box” an assertion that left me feeling nauseous for the better part of my morning.
In support of his argument, Abramjee gives examples of what he thinks are other projects where “leaders are using their profits and influence to find innovative ways to create a more equal society”, listing Microsoft matching employee nonprofit donations and Apple’s ‘Matching Gift Programme’ among them.
What he conveniently omits though, is long standing tax avoidance accusations amounting to billions in US dollars against both Apple and Microsoft, meaning what they ‘give back’ is only a small percentage of what they have actually taken from people. As Abramjee should know, taxes are funds that are used to provide much needed services to people, meaning any tax dodging is stealing from ordinary people and weakens the state’s ability to provide.
Another example Abramjee goes on to add is the CEO Initiative, which has CEOs and business leaders taking a pledge committing to “do[ing] the right thing; stand by what is right and reject[ing] what is wrong”. The pledge claims to stand for “social justice and transformation so that South Africa truly becomes a country that belongs to all who live in it“.
While some, like Abramjee, see the initiative as a welcome sign of business ‘finally getting involved in the country’; the pledge is absolute bullshit considering the difference in salaries between Black and white workers and the ever increasing gap between the highest and lowest paid workers, to name just a few of the transgressions committed by business. Just this year Bloomberg released a report showing that South African CEOs earn 500 times more than the average worker, which is the widest gap in the world.
A signatory of the pledge is the CEO of Exxaro, which is currently under-fire from NGOs for their projects in Thabametsi and Khanyisa which would pose “an immediate threat to people’s health and the local environment”. Then there’s also MTN, which has been accused of moving billions of rands made on the continent to offshore tax havens. Life Healthcare and Mediclinic International which are also signatories, came under fire during the Health Market Inquiry at which the latter conceded that it could potentially be “be held responsible for negatively infringing on the right to healthcare services”.
And then there’s Murray & Roberts Holdings Limited, which was implicated in the construction cartel, which cost each individual tax payer substantially far more than Nkandla. I could go on and on, naming the various ways in which the everyday practice of these very same businesses causes harm to people and the environment, but I think you get the point.
By using these examples, Yusuf Abramjee in fact proves critics of the CEO SleepOut to be right in our assessment of it as a performance of charity that fails to address structural inequality in any way. A means of looking like messiahs, when in fact they are a part of the reason the very same problems they claim to be tackling exist.
While Abramjee sees leaders contributing for philanthropic cause, what we actually have is a class of people whose ruthless profit maximising ways and excess come directly off the backs of those they claim to be assisting. So no, the CEO SleepOut like the rest of his examples are not going beyond a tick box exercise, they are merely a repackaged version of the same old occasional feel good undertakings, which are done despite daily harm caused by unethical, exploitative business practice.
We cannot afford to praise CEOs for doing the bare minimum, when many of them are in fact beneficiaries of the misery of others and actively work to keep it that way.