Two years ago, when social cohesion emerged as the focal point for Indlulamithi, even those who helped make this choice were surprised. Social cohesion was not exactly the strongest signal on the socio-political radar at the time – and it is still unusual to find an organisation that prioritises the issue.

The National Business Initiative (NBI) is among this unusual minority. Founded in 1995 by President Nelson Mandela to help chart a role for business in building our young democracy, it initiated its Transformation and Social Cohesion Programme about a year ago.

The programme has been developed through interactions with the corporate entities that constitute the NBI’s membership. A report based on these workshops remarks that too many companies approach transformation as a compliance issue and therefore miss the opportunity “of contributing in a deep and meaningful way to eradicating discrimination, inequity and inequality and in so doing building social cohesion, common purpose and harmonious relationships in the workplace as well as between business and the broader society”.

Recently the NBI devoted one of its Thought Leadership Dialogues in KwaZulu-Natal to the Indlulamithi scenarios. Gugu McLaren-Ushewokunze, who heads the NBI Transformation and Social Cohesion Programme, said the scenarios had provided invaluable context for business-focused interventions on social cohesion. “Our members were really fired up and about 80% stayed behind talking about the session well after it ended.”

Indlulamithi has identified three crucial driving forces that determine the degree of social cohesion: social inequality; resistance, resentment and reconciliation; and leadership and institutional capacity Variations on these driving forces have emerged in the NBI’s themes and objectives.

For example, leadership is one of the NBI’s themes and the report indicates that the objective is to develop “bold and courageous leadership . . . that is self-reflective and committed to achieving sustainable change within companies and society”.

Ms Mclaren-Ushewokunzi indicates that the challenge is developing leadership with a deep understanding of the nature of our society plus the ability to give corporate direction. “Once we have this kind of leadership it unlocks people’s ability to address the identified issues.”

The NBI is sensitive to the view in some quarters that business has shrunk from taking the kinds of risks that would put national interests – for example, job creation – ahead of private profits. She believes that innovative models for intervention could change such perceptions. Business has “many levers to pull” to change the balance of privilege-poverty. But working solely within corporate institutional structures may not maximise impact.

For example, the purposeful use of supply chains in order to advance small and medium enterprises is a reasonable ask of most businesses. Could this intervention be more effective if companies with similar value chains collaborated? Collaboration among traditional competitors could be key to business playing a stronger role in driving social cohesion. The NBI has invited the Competition Commission to lead dialogue sessions on how this could be pursued without falling foul of competition law.

The resentment-resistance-reconciliation factor identified through the Indlulamithi process is also mirrored in the NBI’s themes. These speak of the developing inclusive, cohesive organisations, fostering open and honest dialogue in the workplace, and building trust through collaboration.

Ms McLaren-Ushewokunze comments: “There is a great deal of resentment (within workplaces) and a great deal of fear and uncertainty. These feelings play out without people talking about them.” She points out how easily these kinds of barriers to cohesion could be dismantled through the facilitation of rich conversations that build understanding and empathy.

The NBI’s work on transformation and social cohesion is complemented by its efforts in several other focus areas, which include a future-oriented approach to skills development and environmental sustainability.