Skip to content

Social Transformation: COVID-19 and the fight for equality in an unequal society

NBI Thought Leadership, 28 April 2020  

COVID-19 has caused unprecedented social and economic upheaval. As a result of endemic inequality, the daily consequences of this pandemic are being unequally experienced across South African society, with the marginalised in society baring the brunt of the negative consequences.

It is no longer possible to deny that this pandemic reinforces social inequalities and amplifies the structural deficiencies in our society.

The National Business Initiative’s (NBI’s) Social Transformation work has long been driven by the imperative of achieving a just and equal society. At a time when social inequalities are becoming more pronounced, the work of the NBI’s Social Transformation team has never been more pertinent.

The NBI’s work on social transformation and social sustainability encompasses four key work streams:

  • Economic Inclusion (Skills & Youth Employability; SME and Supplier Development)
  • Inclusion and Equity (Inclusivity Blueprint; Gender Equity; LGBTQI Inclusion)
  • Ethical Leadership and Anti-Corruption
  • Activating Leadership (CEO Champion Dialogues; Inter-generational Dialogues)


Considering the topical relevance of each of these work streams, especially in light of the current socio-economic climate in South Africa, the NBI Social Transformation team will be releasing a series of topic specific Quick Briefs on each thematic area.

This series of Quick Briefs will highlight how COVID-19 is impacting transformation imperatives, as well as how our work aims to address them. To introduce this series, the NBI has linked some of the more pressing COVID-19 impacts with the outcomes that will need to be addressed.

We have grouped the issues and responses required according to the work streams that will address each imperative. In terms of our social transformation work, these are the key risks that we have identified and which our work will aim to address:

Enabling Economic Inclusion

The economic implications of COVID-19 are being experienced disproportionately. In the short-term, companies in the formal sector are more likely to have the cash reserves to sustain their organisations through the lock-down. SMEs are in direct danger of collapse, despite the numerous funding schemes available, which could result in further job losses.

South Africa’s large informal sector is being hardest hit. It is also the sector least able to handle economic shocks. For those living hand-to-mouth, the battle to save lives on the health front is in danger of being lost to hunger if the economy remains shut for an extended period. Feeding schemes and financial support are fundamental until such time as the economy can safely transition to a new normal.

Progress made on the skills and youth employability front is in danger of taking a monumental leap backwards if not kept high on the agenda of companies, as we seek to reopen and rebuild our economy. There are however, inherent opportunities in up-skilling the youth in key sectors needed to rebuild the economy, as well as in preparation for new ways of working in the future. The NBI’s strategic work in creating enabling environments (for both individuals as well as SMEs) will be necessary now, more than ever, as South Africa rebuilds its economy. This work will need to include the following focal areas:

  • Increased solutions in addressing barriers to entry (individuals and SMEs)
  • Facilitating learning and knowledge sharing among entrepreneurs and SMEs
  • Developing inclusive, collaborative business models

Inclusion and Equity

The new world of virtual work is widening inequality in the workplace. For those fortunate enough to still find themselves employed, the boundaries between home and office have blurred, with many struggling to balance the multiple roles of parent/spouse/employee simultaneously. This is creating heightened levels of anxiety, which are exacerbated in those with underlying mental health problems. In many cases, those suddenly out of work may be even more vulnerable, with issues of depression and increases in suicide levels being of utmost concern as personal financial implications mount.

The United Nations’ Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women highlights the disproportionate impacts on women of both unpaid care work as well as escalating incidences of gender-based violence (GBV) under lock-down conditions. The NBI’s Newsflash Gender-Based Violence in a time of COVID-19 implores companies to navigate the unchartered territory of home and office becoming one newly defined space, in order to assist vulnerable employees in abusive situations.

The NBI’s report Gender Equity in the Workplace highlights the far reaching issues of not only the gender pay gap but gender inequality in the workplace. With the worsening of workplace inequality under COVID-19 conditions, concerted efforts will be required from all sides to forge ahead in radically reducing inequality post COVID-19.

Ethical Leadership and Anti-Corruption

Crises tend to amplify the best or worst in people. The same is true of leadership. The COVID-19 crisis has elicited shining examples of bold leadership, not least of all from President Ramaphosa. But large-scale solutions will come at great financial cost.

The national response to the COVID-19 crisis will have enormous financial implications for Government, which may be accompanied by a collapse in revenues from taxes. The simultaneous downgrade by Moody’s of the South African economy to junk status will further contribute to the fiscal deficits and depreciating Rand. With an economy already weakened from years of corruption under the State Capture era, it will be more necessary now than ever to ensure ethical leadership so that South Africa rebuilds better than before. This will involve a new era of long-term State capacity building, with the NBI’s previous work in the capacity building space, ideally placing us in a strong position to lead this work.

Activating Leadership

The imperative of a post COVID-19 world and especially workplace, will be not simply to rebuild but also to reinvent. It is not enough to acknowledge that the way we have done things in the past has entrenched systemic inequality.

The NBI’s Programme Manager for Social Transformation, Bridgette Mdangayi, explains how South African businesses and the State demonstrated strong leadership by reacting early and decisively to COVID-19. Bridgette stresses the fact that as part of rebuilding process we will need to find “remedial solutions for how corporate organisations deal with the multiple impacts of COVID-19, with bold leadership at the centre of these responses.”

We need to grasp the opportunity to do things differently by promoting bold, brave new models of leadership and ways of working. Part of the solutions required will be remedial capacity building in organisations to assist in re-introducing people back into a whole new world of work while proactively dealing with issues such as GBV, LGBTQI inclusion and closing the gender pay gap.

The NBI has its work cut out for it in terms of achieving social transformation in a COVID-19 transformed world. We will provide further details on how we plan to address these issues in the short, medium and long-term in our series of Quick Briefs on our individual work streams.

The greatest lesson from COVID-19 has been that we need the moral courage, bold leadership and ambition to break from the dichotomies of the past. COVID-19 presents us with the opportunity to tackle systemic change. The NBI Social Transformation team is ready to rise to this challenge.

For more information on the work of the NBI’s Social Transformation team, please contact:

Bridgette Mdangayi:

Slide 1