How can we address inequality?

When I put these ‘interview articles’ together, I usually try to follow the rule that one conversation = one article. However, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Maritha Erasmus, CEO of Managing Transformation Solutions (Pty) Ltd, and our conversation quickly expanded out into so many fascinating areas that I’ve decided to break my rule and turn our conversation into a four article series. I hope you’ll find what Maritha has to say as interesting and informative as I do.

First, though, a little bit of background.

MTS are a South African company that specialises in guiding business leaders through critical sustainability decisions. Their focus is on developing social transformation strategies that have lasting sustainable social impact, and although they primarily work within the mining industry, they also service a wide variety of other industries including civil engineering and construction. MTS are also the developer of a cloud-based Social Sustainability platform called Insite, which enables their clients to seamlessly streamline all their data collection, monitoring, and reporting requirements.

I asked Maritha to describe MTS in more detail.

Maritha Erasmus: Our business, MTS, is based in South Africa. We deal mostly with the South African mining industry, the communities directly affected by the mining industry, and the firms that contract into the mining industry such as construction and core mining activities. About 16 to 17 years ago, the founders of MTS worked as social scientists doing household relocations and socio-economic impact assessments. Then the landscape started to change around South African mining rights, where the mining rights belonged to the State and the mine had to present an environmental and social plan on how they were going to mine sustainably.

As a result, we partnered with the mining industry in the development, implementation and reporting of their social and labour plan strategies. The volumes of datasheets that needed to be compiled, analysed and reported on made it a massive endeavour which, in the old days, we used to call ‘Death by Excel’ because everything would be done through Excel spreadsheets. And then, in 2009, we established MTS and took the unheard-of step to create a cloud-based system that would automate the amalgamation of social compliance information and start generating the reports. Since 2009 the system has gone through various iterations and is now known as Insite, a tool that enables end-to-end data automation of material social performance data fields.

Our solution was ahead of the curve at the time; just imagine a cloud-based social sustainability solution for an industry known to be conservative adopters! Over the intervening years, we’ve continued to innovate and update the system. It’s been changed, grown, redeveloped – all the kinds of things that dedicated I.T. specialists would normally do – and now, although it’s still cloud-based, it has a far wider scope than South Africa.

Alexander Pond: Tell us about the relevance of your work.

Maritha: The relevance of our work is based around ‘localisation’ and ‘Inclusivity’ from an employment, skills development, and inclusive supply chain point of view.

What that essentially means is, by using our client’s actual procurement information we’re able to interface into ERP systems such as SAP, JD Edwards, SYSPRO etc., utilising baseline information to analyse procurement spend patterns and auto-generate reports that will clearly show the impact of the mine’s procurement spend on the communities and areas surrounding the mine – those communities that ‘eat their dust’.

Insite reporting will outline top supplier spend patterns as well as indicate the balance of spend between Tier 1 companies vs Tier 3 or smaller companies, and whether those companies are locally owned or not. Within the South African context, ‘locally owned’ references both the companies situated in communities immediately surrounding the mine (localised inclusion), as well as companies in South Africa (local). This data can then be tracked over time to illustrate how spend has moved – from Tier 1 companies further afield to Tier 3 and smaller companies situated in communities directly impacted by the mine, indicating the development of a more inclusive value chain for our clients. As at the end of the day, our objective is inclusivity.

Alex: The first topic I’d like us to discuss is education.

My experience of Britain’s education system has forced me to question the values, purpose and methods of how we educate here in the UK. My first truly successful venture aimed to reimagine education creating a fully-fledged media empire that delivered hands-on practical experience in a tough-to-enter industry and greater cohesion with the wider community through commercial engagement. Our inspiration was the great Ken Robinson and his book ‘The Element’, following his awe-inspiring TED Talk. What are your views about education in the context of South Africa and the communities impacted around the mining sector?

Maritha: Education is a hugely important factor in achieving inclusivity as the necessary skills levels are not always available in the local communities, both from a recruitment point of view as well as the development of enterprises that can be included in the supply chain.

With regards to localised representation in the workforce it is important to understand where your employees originate from and to ensure that you have programmes in place to enable gender and ethical ethnic representation across your company, from unskilled levels right up to the more skilled levels. Achieving this representation and inclusivity across a company often requires a huge investment in learnerships, bursaries, and graduate development programs, both for employees as well as unemployed members of the local communities.

The mining sector is a key employer of vulnerable groups of people and as such the industry plays a key role in expanding South Africa’s skills set through the upskilling of unskilled and semi-skilled employees through robust skills development programmes.

Alex: How does your system at MTS give them those answers?

Maritha: By using real payroll data with ID numbers and employee numbers, we have developed a range of reports that indicate representation across occupational levels analysing ethnic representation as well aspects such as gender, skills, and age groups. In all the reports, users with the correct security access can drill down into every person to examine the entire operation from a fine-detail point of view. This enables our clients to present social performance reporting that has used verified information with regards to localisation, inclusivity and representation.

Our approach has always been, don’t just tell us X,Y, or Z document is there, what proof have you got that you’ve actually done it?

Normally, the only requirement other Asset Managers ask for is, “Have you got X,Y, or Z document in place, yes or no?” and then they’d stop there. But our approach has always been, don’t just tell us X,Y, or Z document is there, what proof have you got that you’ve actually done it? Or maybe they’ll tell us they’ve recruited ten per cent of their workforce from the local community, in which case my next question always is, “Okay, so if you’ve recruited ten per cent semi-skilled workers from the local community, does that mean you have actually broken the cycle of poverty through skills development for those workers or, if something happens, are they going to be the first people to be retrenched and sent back to whatever they came from?”

That, in a nutshell, is what we do.

Alex: Getting back to the subject of education, which you and I have talked about before and I know is an issue we both hold very dear; one of the things you’ve told me is that, from a head office point of view, the idea of driving up educational standards and improving education for the skilled work force can actually force an even greater wedge between those who are allowed access to education and those who aren’t.

I wanted to expand on that a little bit because, from our privileged ‘western’ point of view, it seems like having access to education should do the opposite – it should help drive standards together. But you’ve told me that isn’t always the case where the mines are based?

Maritha: An interesting trend we’ve noticed within the South African communities is that, because of the pressure in South Africa for transformation and upliftment and for a broader range of people to benefit from the economy, the mining industry has invested a significant amount of money in skills development, bursaries, learnerships, internships, and other programs like that. But the problem is, they still need to balance those educational opportunities with the pressures of production.

Often, people will start working at the mine as an unskilled or semi-skilled person, but they’ll be full-time employed. Meanwhile, people in the community will be offered bursaries or learnerships, and the unemployed members of the community will get the opportunity to go and learn. So, even though the people who are working full-time at the mine are employed and earning money, in ten or fifteen-years’ time they’ll still be in the same place. On the other hand, their peers who were unemployed when they started working will now be far ahead of them because they’ve qualified through learnerships, bursaries and so on, and their careers will have steadily progressed.

Alex: What’s the solution to that?

Maritha: I always tell my clients to make sure they create skills development opportunities for both employed as well as unemployed people, otherwise it can create a weird disconnect in the dynamics within the community. In recent years, we’ve seen the very same thing with women. In the beginning, and even today, there is a significant focus on the recruitment of women within communities in the South African mining industry, but because it’s a patriarchal society - communities are still very traditional and male dominated - it changed the power dynamics in those communities and that became quite stressful for a while.

I think that it is starting to balance out now because of the continued influx of western ideas and the fact that youth are growing up in western schools and have increased access to tertiary education. Fourteen years ago, when the drive to recruit women was first introduced, instances of gender-based violence increased in communities. There were occasions when women had been killed because they’d started to earn more money and caused a shift in the power dynamic.

Alex: I am concerned about individuals who work in organisations that are not being progressive about systemically integrating sustainability and developing sustainable innovation for their business, and so much of that is wrapped up in the need for ongoing education. For example, 13,000 retail jobs were recently lost in the U.K. when the Arcadia group collapsed into administration. I don’t think those 13,000 jobs will ever come back, especially when we already have such an over-abundance of self-service, click-and-collect, and delivery logistics companies out there. Why would retail companies in the future hire staff to work in shops when there’s an underlying shift taking place around artificial intelligence, robots, and other technologies taking those positions over?

I was already concerned about that happening, but largely because of the COVID pandemic that’s accelerated so much over the last twelve months. Now we’ve got this void of even more jobs being lost, and I don’t see those jobs returning.

Maritha: The question that we’re going to have to ask as a society and also as an individual is, if that job will never exist again, what alternatives are there for society to absorb the people that no longer have an opportunity to earn an income. Is it social grants? is it a safety network? is it alternative employment? This is the future, and we can’t argue that it’s not.

But it was taking place long before the pandemic. Look at high-impact industries like the mining industry, agriculture, construction, hospitality, hotel groups. Even conservation.

Most lately, we’ve gotten involved with conservation, and you would think that conservation, protecting the environment, is wonderful. However, the impact that protecting the environment can have on communities and their ability to earn a livelihood could be stifling, and that is sometimes overlooked.

When that happens, the interconnectedness between environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and the opportunity to generate intergenerational wealth is something we urgently need to start thinking about. It’s not as simple as donating a computer or painting a school or any of those other projects that companies get involved with which are nice and tidy, PR-friendly and easy to ring fence. It’s about asking yourself,

“Will what we’re doing now have long term impact? Will it generate intergenerational wealth for people, or will it limit the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth?”

Because that’s how you address inequality. That’s how you empower people to take responsibility, embrace education, and grow themselves. I think the world has substantially changed because of COVID, just look at how many people are now working from home. What are people going to do with office space? I don’t know what it’s like in England but in South Africa we don’t have a traffic problem anymore, I don’t get stuck in traffic anywhere near as much as in the past because everybody is working from home and their children are not going to school! It’s completely changed, and I don’t think we’re going to wake up one day and it’s going to go back to normal. It’s substantially changed, so what does that mean in eighteen months’ time for people as the job-shed continues?

Alex: From a personal perspective we’re all going to have to think about our own responsibility and the feedback loops within our own life, business and environment. That’s going to become really crucial, and it’s something that needs to be built into the thinking of children. That’s what I meant by education, making sure people really understand that. And I think developing countries intrinsically understand it better than more developed countries because their margin of error is so much narrower. If it doesn’t rain your plants die and you don’t eat.

Also, while these underlying social issues have already been around for a while in developing or underdeveloped countries, and MTS has recognised that within the South African mining industry, I think they’re about to come to the front door of businesses that are absolutely not prepared for what this would mean for them. Because one of the things that we require for companies to remain profitable is that the people who are working in those companies must continue to proliferate the same financial system that we operate today. If they’re not in work and those jobs aren’t available, that financial system will quickly shut down.

Maritha: You’re absolutely right. It goes back to education. I don’t necessarily mean degrees or higher levels of education like varsity education, I mean education in terms of self-sustainability, of owning your own destiny, of making use of opportunities that are available, and of creative thinking. For a very long time the idea of education was spoon-fed, children went to school and learned by rote – ‘one-plus-one’ - without a lot of understanding. But Futurists have been saying for a while that, in the years’ ahead, you’re going to meet people who can problem-solve as well as think creatively. It’s no longer about thinking, “I’m going to work for XXX company and have a career”, it’s about “What problems can I solve, and how can I earn a livelihood by doing it?” In my opinion, that kind of thinking needs to be taken up by everybody. As much as people have lost their jobs because of COVID, other people have received opportunities they never would have had if COVID hadn’t happened. It’s not just about taking; it’s about taking and giving. It’s understanding.

There’s been a huge movement for innovation within South Africa, and it’s incredible what has been accomplished with very little resources in a developing economy. People have really taken it by heart. And that’s because our safety net is so narrow that people have had to step up to survive and make a difference. They’ve had no choice but to think outside the box and go, “You know what, the government can’t look after us, we don’t have any jobs, and our official unemployment figure is, let’s say, 47% of the nation (I don’t even want to know what the real number is), so how do you carry a situation where only about 3.5million people out of 56 million people pay tax in the entire country?”

Let’s just think about that for a second. If the people who are paying tax are losing their jobs, what are the taxpayers who are left going to do in another year’s time? That’s when you have to start thinking about this differently, think about humanity differently, think about livelihoods and economic viability and access to education differently.

It’s about leadership wanting to leave legacies and think broader about the future.

Alex: And that’s where Maritha and I will pick up our conversation in the next article, beginning with the subject of leadership.

Note from Alex: I just wanted to add a note that the great Sir Ken Robsinson who died in August 2020 was an enormously influential person in my life who inspired my views on education. His charismatic speeches and interviews totally transformed my life and deeply influenced the decisions I have taken in my career.

Key Takeaways

  • Begin thinking 'localisation' and 'inclusivity' from an employment, skills development, and inclusive supply chain point of view.
  • Question the values, purpose and methods of how you educate, use this time to reimagine.
  • Aim to achieve truly diverse representation in the workforce.
  • Break the cycle of poverty through skills development, not just local employment to avoid retrenchment.
  • Environmental sustainability is interconnected with social sustainability and intergenerational wealth.

What does the future look like?

  • People have been uprooted by COVID and the systems of work and life have changed for good, companies will be expected to create new systems to support them.
  • Companies, especially those with heavy influence over low-skilled communities, will be increasingly held accountable to their wider holistic approach to solve the poverty cycle.
  • Education, impacted by the tectonic shifts in the economy will be required to develop creative skills equally to solve enigmatic problems.
  • Taxation and systems for raising public funds will need to adjust to accommodate the new dynamics of work.

Latest Updates

  1. Part 2. Leadership
    By AG

    Successful leadership drives transformational change that effects impactful social sustainability and ensures that the strategies and initiative used are relevant, implementable and sustainable without compromising the bottom line.

  2. Part 3. Legacy
    By AG

    The idea of being part of something bigger than yourself and leaving something behind that is a testament to your time on the planet.

  3. Part 4. The importance of stepping back and changing perspective
    By AG

    Underlining how crucial it is to take a step back and open our eyes to the natural world around us, so that we can find more organic, effective and sustainable ways to solve the problems.