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Thoughts on Business and Social Justice from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By Dennis Shaughnessy

On a late July afternoon in Cape Town, amidst the daily updates on the health of Nelson Mandela, we were blessed to meet with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of four South Africa Nobel Peace Prize winners.  (The other South African Nobel Peace Prize winners being Chief Albert Luthuli, former President F. W. deClerk, and of course Madiba.)  The “we” in this case was a class of forty Northeastern undergraduates enrolled in SEI’s social enterprise field study program held for the sixth year in Cape Town, South Africa. 

We were given an audience with the Archbishop by way of one of our South African students enrolled at our partner institution, TSiBA.  This student, an orphan from Lesotho, found her way to Cape Town, alone and without any resources, to enroll tuition-free at TSiBA to earn a degree in business and entrepreneurship.  After one year of study, she could no longer afford the meager living expenses to stay enrolled, and so she sent out an email telling her story to seven people she met in her journey.  One of those seven forwarded that email to the attention of the Archbishop’s daughter, who in turn invited her to the Tutu family home for “tea”.  After hearing her story of hardship and hope, the Tutus immediately invited her to move in with them and join their family, and now she is on her way to earning that degree and working for a better, more prosperous and more equal Africa.  And then full circle, to pay it forward, she asked the Archbishop to give us a few minutes of his time to inform and guide us. 

During this time, the Archbishop offered his unscripted thoughts on a wide variety of topics of the day, from what the Trayvon Martin verdict says about our culture in the US, to the grace and dignity of the Obama family who he had recently visited with during their brief tour of South Africa, and finally to the legacy of Nelson Mandela for the next generation of global leaders.  With each of his reflections came inspiring insight informed by his life’s work — in speaking truth to power on behalf of the powerless, and of seeking reconciliation and forgiveness over conflict and revenge. 

From the Nobel Peace Prize winner to our students:  “Each of you, help your country (the US) return to its best days as the world’s most admired and loved country, not the most feared…Americans are wonderful and generous people, but sometimes your systems and government produce inexplicable injustices.”

One topic, though, particularly captured our attention.  The Archbishop, reflecting upon our program in social enterprise and responsible business in the disadvantaged townships of the Cape Flats, suggested that even “the most committed capitalist can see” that the only path to sustainable economic growth for the future is full inclusion of the poor in the global system of commerce.  “Without the poor having opportunities to rise up and out of their suffering, who will these big corporations sell to years from now, who will do their work, where will the profit come from if not from the people living in poverty around the world?”  He cited the millions who still live in shacks in South Africa’s townships, who wait for jobs that haven’t arrived, and who can only dream of good schools, clean water and safe communities.  He suggested that the only permanent solution to poverty and injustice is broad-based economic opportunity, and that it is time for business and the private sector to step up and fully invest in the poor.

It was an incredible moment of wisdom, and a compelling call to action for future business leaders.  What could be heard alongside his endearing laugh and gentle manner was a challenge to students who, the Archbishop noted, represent the possibility of a fairer and more just future. He encouraged those who study business to see the world and their careers in broader terms, and to prepare in their studies to seize the opportunity to use business as a tool for justice, and responsible profit as force for good.

The Archbishop has lived an extraordinary life and unsurpassed achievement dedicated to social justice for everyone.  He clearly and forcefully articulated for us that economic opportunity is an essential ingredient to social justice.  Not necessarily equal outcomes, but an equal opportunity for everyone regardless of where and to whom they were born to live decent, hopeful and meaningful lives.  And, he suggested to us that despite the great progress in racial and gender equality in his beloved South Africa, far too little progress has been made in improving the lives of the poor regardless of their color or gender.  It will take the commitment of business and the private sector to make the kind of broad, systemic change that he and Madiba have dreamed of for so long.

And so we are inspired by Archbishop Tutu’s words, and reminded of our duty.  The job of those of us committed to moving the social enterprise field forward is to find ways to help everyone see why social justice is the most important of all human goals, and that social justice begins with economic justice, and most especially opportunities for decent livelihoods for everyone who can work.  Work gives us all not only income to feed and sustain our families, but the dignity of being human and of being the equal of our neighbor, of anyone.  It’s our job to find innovative ways to create sustainable, productive and meaningful work for everyone who seeks it.

We are focused at SEI on teaching students how to participate in the path toward social and economic justice in a way that I believe the Archbishop would be proud.  That path can begin by starting, building and growing entrepreneurial grassroots enterprises that are driven by the desire for social impact and for mission-driven profit, that employ the previously unemployed and often unemployable, and that offer products and services that communities and families need to prosper.  It can also be by managing a multinational corporation to make informed, righteous decisions about allocating resources to both were profit can be made and where genuine need is greatest.  Or, by investing capital in ways that generate both financial and social returns that can be measured both in terms of dollars and impact.  As the late Robert F. Kennedy said some 45 years ago while visiting South Africa, each of us can be that “ripple of hope” that leads to a world changed for the better.

From the Archbishop, now I close with words of wisdom from Madiba: “The older I get, the more convinced I am that social equality is the one necessary condition for all human happiness.”