Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

An ordinary, decent company — right!

Most of us ordinary, reasonably decent people have difficulty wrapping our minds around the legal notion of a company being a “person” in the same way we are. People are people and companies are, well, just, y’know, companies. People have feelings and morals. Companies don’t.

It never was that simple and it never will be. And that doesn’t make understanding the concept of a juristic person any easier for me.

That is, until I think of a company, however legally constituted it is, as nothing more nor less than a number of people co-operating towards a common purpose. Hundreds of business books have likened companies to a human body – this department is the blood, that department the heart and the bosses are the brains. The ones I’ve read have deliberately not pushed the analogy too far – sooner or later someone or some department will have to be the arsehole.

But the world today is one in which companies very deliberately pump millions into portraying a “human” face to the world. Companies “care”. Companies “support”. Companies “are inspired by”.

The closer those companies are to their consumers, the greater their efforts. Realising a long time ago that the nature of competition on price or quality is transient and ephemeral at best, for the past 30 years or more old-style bricks-and-mortar Victorian megaliths such as banks, insurance companies, car manufacturers, power companies, communications giants and, yes, even retailers have tried to portray themselves as having feelings, sensitivities and an understanding for their clients.

In South Africa, one company in particular — Pick n Pay — has built itself on a “we’re on YOUR side” philosophy as the Robin Hood-style champion of the hard-working mother struggling to feed her family and balance a meagre budget. It even now lays claim to a slogan “Inspired by YOU”, meaning Mama South Africa whose loyal trolley-pushing legions remain inextricably bonded to whatever passes for a “heart and soul” in a company.

Now, like every other power-crazed organisation or individual in Africa, it has turned its back on the very people it tells the world are such an inspiration to it.

Mighty Mom is an organisation which, like hundreds of others in SA, has had to step in where government has failed and, operating off the sniff of a chequebook, provide support for a sector of the community in desperate straits – in this case, vast numbers of single mothers from rickety tin shacks to 24-hour security guarded townhouse complexes.

For Pick n Pay and its avuncular avatar, Raymond Ackerman, supporting single moms is a marketing slam-dunk. That’s why, more than two years ago the partnership formed between the two organisations seemed a match made in heaven.

And everything was going just peachy – manuals on motherhood were produced, upmarket promotions were held, websites were created and marketed by a small platoon of dedicated mothers with laptops and cellphones and all resplendent under the ubiquitous logo of Pick n Pay.

For the world at large the retail store was magnanimity, loyalty and integrity personified – it was THE supermarket to pick … until it came time to pay.

Suddenly a different tune began echoing through its corridors of power. Suddenly the ego-fuelled blame-game ( virtually a national sport in corporate South Africa and one much favoured by a government founded almost entirely on an ethos of personality) began in full ferocity. Suddenly mothers no longer inspired the lords of the shopping aisles – uncle Raymond, his son Jonathan or chief inspiree, Nic Badminton – to muster the integrity or inspiration to answer desperate emails from Mighty Mom founder Philippa Robertson Smith.

Not only were dreams of making a real difference to one of the millions of needy sectors in SA as diaphanous as wispy mountain mist before the rising sun, but livelihoods and incomes of individual moms, battling the worst recession in memory, disappeared as Philippa urged her 20-odd employees to polish their CVs and pluck up their courage.

Having pumped in private resources to get projects off the ground – knowing and trusting in the oh-don’t-worry-about-it support of one of the biggest and most respected retail chains in Africa – Mighty Mom suddenly found the well was dry. Whether the powerhouse Pick n Pay – which turned over more than R50 billion and posted a profit of nearly R2 billion last year — ever really intended to support the organisation or not, it had seen fit, not only to entertain Might Mom’s estimates that their project would ultimately cost about R18-million, but Pick n Pay had pledged at least R600 000 in direct sponsorship in the first year.

As a sign of its support and integrity it took the Mighty Mom project under the wing of its own corporate social responsibility division, offered to promote it through its gigantic database of clients, send letters to the armies of trolley-pushers across the length and breadth of SA to join the Mighty Mom initiative, promote sales of a support manual for single mothers through Pick n Pay’s Schools Club and even insisted on a lavish launch function in keeping with the company’s “upmarket image”.

And, just to ensure it all stayed in the family, Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, the group’s 44-year-old director of transformation (whatever that entails), was guest of honour and keynote speaker at the launch of the Mighty Mom Pick n Pay Project in October 2008.

And great were the goals to be — 120 000 manuals were to be printed and distributed to the Pick n Pay Schools Club (at a discounted price allowing each school to make R25 on each manual sold), seminars and empowerment workshops would be held, online support services provided through Mighty Mom’s website and a grand finale event would be held each year to choose the Pick n Pay Mighty Mom of the Year. And everything would take place under the famous name and trusted brand of Pick n Pay, its omnipresent red-and-blue logo resplendent in corporate custodianship over all.

Ah, such are the stuff of dreams and the wages of faith.

As costs mounted and the well of good faith stayed ominously arid, Philippa became concerned. With 2 000 manuals printed and creditors storming the ramparts – and a doggedly bare cupboard – Mighty Mom turned to uncle Raymond, his son Jonathan and CEO Nic Badminton. That’s when word turned to cry, and the cry was “Havoc!” and dogs of law were let slip on Mighty Mom.

It is tragic that on a continent heavily reliant on charity and the goodwill of the wealthy and powerful to sustain and uplift the impoverished and disempowered, corporate social responsibility has gone from noble cause to misnomer to subtle nom de guerre for marketing. It is equally tragic that well-meaning and effectively managed causes are pushed to dance to the piper’s tune – and if the piper arbitrarily tires of the dance, it will dismiss the cause with a casual “Off-with-her-head” flick of an imperious wrist.

The fact that this corporate hubris happens daily is unconscionable. The fact that companies’ words are no longer their bonds, that squadrons of highly paid lawyers fly in like covert black ops “specialists” to replace candour and sincerity, and that integrity has the value of a can of beans all contribute to a culture of distrust and national disgrace.

As little as we believe government promises and the ethos of Batho Pele (or whatever the latest buzzword bullshit is), we the buying public no longer have reason to believe Pick n Pay is “inspired by us” or any of the hundreds of other corporate slogans. We see right through you all!

And when juristic persons or corporate citizens prove they no longer have the moral fibre to stand by the one and only competitive edge they ever will have – integrity – they forfeit all right to our trust in anything they say. They doff the guise of decency in favour of the flash and bling of baseness, turpitude and immorality.

All the things our mighty moms taught us not to be.