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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.”