Written by: Dr. Stephen Sinclair, Reader in Social Policy at GCU
As part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE) project – For a Better Tomorrow: Social Enterprises on the Move (FAB-MOVE) I have been enjoying a fascinating secondment to the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. I am using this time to learn about South Africa’s vibrant social enterprise sector and the social innovation infrastructure in Cape Town and the Western Cape region, and what lessons these might hold for other countries involved in the project, including Scotland and the UK.
Social enterprise has a long history in South Africa: the first cooperative was formed in Pietermaritzburg in 1892, the Ashoka Foundation has been operating in the country since 1991 and that year Johannesburg hosted the Social Enterprise World Forum. However, it is only more recently that the capacity of social enterprise and innovation to address some of the challenges facing South Africa has become a prominent political and policy issue. Two decades after the first democratic elections and the ending of Apartheid, South Africa has a distinctive economic and social complexion: it enjoys some of the advantages of a fully developed economy but alongside these it faces many of the problems and potential hazards of an developing nation. It is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and the continuing legacy of racial division is evident everywhere – even in Cape Town and the Western Cape, which is the most economically developed area in the country. Over a third of South Africa’s population still live in former ‘homeland’ areas, where severe multiple deprivation prevails. For example, according to the South African Index of Multiple Deprivation (developed by the South African Social Policy Research Institute) 88% of the population in the former Transkei area lack basic material essentials. The overwhelming majority of such communities are Black African. Unemployment in 2014 was 24.3% (and youth unemployment 49%), but this too has a strong racial and geographic distribution (reflecting relative educational and other opportunities): 29% of Black Africans were unemployed at that time compared to only 7% of the White population. As an aspirant ‘BRIC’ nation, South Africa is also dealing with some of the challenges of economic development, including a housing shortage and overstretched infrastructure due to rapid urbanisation. At the same time, as the dominant economy in the sub-Saharan region, it has to cope with absorbing thousands of economic migrants and asylum seekers from several of its less developed and politically unstable neighbours.
Evidently, social enterprise and innovation are not panaceas which can themselves resolve these problems and the tensions they generate. But there are signs that the country’s burgeoning and energetic social economy can develop imaginative and effective responses to address some of them. One of the most promising and high profile examples of this is RLabs – an education, training and IT social enterprise which was founded in the Athlone district of Cape Town in 2008. From very challenging conditions and seemingly unpromising beginnings RLabs now has 120 staff across Africa, Asia and Europe, and generates about half of its income through trade and commercial activity. The founder of RLabs, Marlon Parker, is one of the most admired and prominent social entrepreneurs in South Africa, and like many such innovators, motivated by a vision and seemingly boundless energy and optimism. His view is that social innovation means ‘the democratisation of effective agency’ and is a resource available to everyone. The ‘secret’ of RLabs’ success, he says, is seeing resources and opportunities in communities and situations where others see problems.
The latest RLabs venture is the development of a MOOC (massive open online course) in partnership with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The Bertha Centre was launched in 2011 and, in a short time, has become one of the leading social innovation teaching and research establishments in Africa. I attended the launch of the ‘Becoming A Changemaker: Introduction to Social Innovation’ MOOC at UCT’s of Business Graduate School on 14th July – #socinvmooc
At this launch, Marlon Parker argued that, although there is limited IT infrastructure in many poorer and rural areas of South Africa, this MOOC can help stimulate collaborative learning and initiate discussions within communities and between social entrepreneurs which will continue offline. Working with UCT also enhances RLabs’ ‘brand identity’ and credibility, which it will use to access other enterprise and partnership opportunities.
In addition to learning about the challenges and opportunities of social innovation and enterprise in South Africa, the FAB-MOVE project has enabled the Yunus Centre to establish closer working relationships with both Bertha Centre and UWC staff and develop further collaborative research projects.
South Africa still some way to go to create an enabling social enterprise environment, but there are promising foundations. For example, I met with Rachael Millison, Hub Manager of the South African Social Enterprise Academy in Cape Town, and learned more about the supporting and collaborative networks which the SEA are helping to nurture and develop. The energy and imagination which characterises social enterprises across the world is very evident here. This may be driven by the necessity of civil society responses to social problems, but it is also expresses the South African ethos of ‘Ubuntu’ – a shortened version of the principle expressed in the Zulu language as, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – which means that a person is only truly a person through others. It will be interesting to see what form social innovations might take to address the distinctive challenges which South Africa faces, and how we in and beyond Europe can learn from and share experiences with them. I look forward to continuing this fascinating education and will discuss some of the things I have learned in my next blog.