In Africa, this call has been heard clearly as the unequal benefits of rising economic growth threaten to spill over into major societal problems if left unaddressed. This is particularly important in light of Africa’s potential demographic dividend, which could well translate into a demographic risk if opportunities for inclusive economic growth are not harnessed.
Amid what could easily be seen as the first stages of the demise of the traditional capitalist system, and proof it was never going to work in an African context, we see patterns emerging through the actions of businesses and business leaders which suggest something slightly different.
Within business communities, an understanding is growing that these societal problems cannot be solved or prevented only by the state or development organisations.
The realisation that unequal societies are unsustainable is now dawning on the business community, which has come to realise that, rather than being a burden, social responsibility needs to be embraced and driven by an intrinsic incentive rather than an external compulsion. This realisation has necessitated a shift in thinking.
This shift has materialised in what Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu has called "Africapitalism", a trend that has caught the imagination of African commentators and policy analysts alike. The term is used to describe new models of philanthropic investment, taking a much more bottom-up approach to investment than may previously have been the case, and defining the social impact as one of the key measures of investment success.
Although perhaps the most visible in this endeavour, Elumelu is by no means alone in seeing private sector investment as a key lever in driving value for people at all levels of African society. The likes of Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote, South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe and Ashish Thakkar, an entrepreneur with African business interests, have also recently embarked on new ventures in this vein, directing millions of dollars to issues from education, to housing and social welfare, most often in the same geographical areas where their strictly financial investments have taken place.
Though social upliftment is one end of their endeavours, the means remains one of unashamedly for-profit investment and free-market capitalism. This approach speaks to business strategist Michael Porter’s "shared-value" (a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that combine with their business strategy) and gives impetus to the idea that social upliftment and profit-making need not be mutually exclusive.
Africapitalism goes a step further in saying that not only can these imperatives successfully coexist, but they can reinforce one another.
In this regard, social responsibility and community development are no longer simply a nice-to-have but an absolutely critical element in the creation and maintenance of sustainable businesses and societies. However, these mutually beneficial endeavours can thrive only when African governments develop supportive policy guidelines and an environment conducive to both commercial and social investment.
The poverty and noninclusive themes are particularly evident in SA and Nigeria, which have experienced significant tension in their labour relations, most notably in their extractives industries.
The mining industry has been the backbone of SA’s economy since the late 1800s. But the present turbulence in the sector has brought the dysfunctional relationship between employers and employees firmly under the microscope and invited scrutiny of how the industry arrived at this point.
Such widespread outrage among mine workers across so many companies is not a coincidence — it is the cumulative effect of years of systematic errors and poor communication from a number of company leaders, the general failure to invest in soft infrastructure and the wellness of the employee, combined with market pressure to keep profits up and costs down.
Similarly, in Nigeria, much of the blame for the conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta can be attributed to multinational oil companies and their approach to business.
Given the severity of working conditions and the physically demanding nature of the work in extractive industries, it is natural that workers seek to improve their pay.
But with depressed commodity prices compounding the pressure on profitability, resource companies are less willing (and less able) to simply increase wages.
In this regard, the fundamental problem is that workers share limited upside in the performance of a company through the commodity cycle.
In the good years, with commodity prices elevated, companies rake in profits with minimal benefit for local communities; yet when the tide turns, workers bear the brunt of retrenchments.
The failure of many companies to adequately provide quality services to employees such as healthcare, education and power supply has resulted in the rise of a frustrated workforce, tired of the perceived disregard and neglect of their concerns, and now willing to take matters into their own hands.
Africapitalists have come to understand that this situation is neither sustainable nor desirable.
They have learnt that, in a rising tide, all ships are lifted, and only in vibrant, healthy societies can business really thrive. They have seen that by creating a shared future with the beneficiaries of philanthropic endeavours, all parties are invested in success.
A second factor evident in this trend is the growing degree to which these investors are making their philanthropic investments public. The reasons they do so range from personal motivations to those looking to the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to show that large-scale philanthropy is not confined to the western world, and even using advocacy as a tool to create awareness and call others to action.
Regardless of the reason, increasing awareness of their investments ensures that investors are accountable both to their beneficiaries and to the public, another factor that ensures that their business interests, and the interests of the communities in which they are invested, are aligned.
History has shown us, many times over, that society will follow the example of a visionary few.
Individuals such as those discussed do not carry the burden of corporate or government bureaucracy, there are limited authorities to whom they must answer, and many of their highest business hurdles are already cleared. They are well positioned to blaze a trail that other business people and governments can eventually follow.
Gopaldas is head of country risk at Rand Merchant Bank. Ball is a senior adviser in the strategic social investments team at KPMG.