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Why does business fear the activist?

Mention the word ‘activist’ in Kenyan corporate circles, and watch all the chief executives head for the nearest exit. In business, activists are persona non grata at best, dangerous hotheads at worst. There is nothing to be gained from associating with these people, who seem to get high on tear-gas and are only truly alive when they’re running riot; they are best shunned and avoided.

Is this really true, though? I found myself wondering about this at the launch of a recent book chronicling the life of Makhan Singh. Mr. Singh was that rarest of species in Kenya – a ‘Muhindi’ activist. He was an extremely important figure in Kenya’s colonial history, yet little was known about him prior to the publication of the book ‘Unquiet: the Life and Times of Makhan Singh’.

Unlike most of his compatriots, Makhan Singh had little interest in profit-making or professional acclaim. Instead, he devoted his whole life to railing against injustice. And he found plenty to fight against in colonial Kenya. In 1935, at the age of 23, he organised his first trade union. In the period just after the Second World War, he launched himself into a lifelong obsession with politics and trade unionism.

He allied himself with other leading activists of the day, including Fred Kubai, Pranlal Sheth, Achieng Oneko and Masinde Muliro, and became a real thorn in the side of the colonial government. For this, he was arrested and placed in indefinite detention. The mantle of trade union leadership was passed on to Bildad Kaggia, who took it up with vigour. ‘Unquiet’ tells us that Makhan Singh and his comrades were part and parcel of Mau Mau, maintaining a supply route to the forest fighters.

Makhan Singh spent eleven and a half years in detention, refusing to abandon his ideals, resisting all attempts to break his spirit. He was finally released in 1961, and a year later was amongst the first non-Africans to join Kanu. Sadly, it was the very independence Makhan and his ilk fought so hard for that resulted in their being shunted aside. Free Kenya rapidly became a milking machine for the new elite, and such a society had no place for the likes of Makhan, Kubai, or Kaggia. Makhan Singh was targeted, harassed and monitored by same people he helped liberate, and his son maintains that he “died of frustration” in 1973.

The launch of ‘Unquiet’ was attended by many, including Kenya’s current corporate glitterati. All appeared regaled by the various accounts of the hero’s life. Yet I found myself wondering: what would these people have made of Makhan if he were around today, sniffing around their businesses, organising their workers to demand their rights, leading strikes against some of the harsh practices he would undoubtedly have uncovered? Would he still be a hero, or just another annoying busybody who didn’t understand business?

The author of ‘Unquiet’, Zarina Patel, is an accomplished activist herself, having saved Nairobi’s Jeevanjee Gardens from grabbing in 1991. She belongs to a pantheon of modern-day campaigners that includes Wangari Maathai and many others: those who have stood up to object, to protest, to campaign, and to risk gaol and worse, in the face of the worst injustices of the regimes of the day.

If it wasn’t for Wangari, Uhuru Park would be home to a 60-story monstrosity today, and Karura Forest would be just another home to the rich and famous. Are we grateful for that? Or did she just get in the way of good business? We applauded her Nobel Prize, but do we applaud the person and what drives her?

It’s a strange thing, this mistrust of activists. They stand up to fight the injustices most of us would shrink away from; they sacrifice their family lives and incomes for the greater good (Makhan Singh did not earn any money in his entire life); they show the courage that changes nations: so why do we shun them?

Part of the disdain shown by business comes from a perception that businesspeople know what’s best for society, and should be left alone to do their thing. Oh yes? Is it not big business that poisoned an entire town called Bhopal in India; periodically ruins fragile eco-systems; often supports the vilest dictators; and is now heating the whole planet to possible destruction?

We are a bit too quick to extol our own nobility as businesspeople. Especially in this country, where too many businesses routinely engage in absolutely vile practices: ferrying workers in trucks like cattle; employing them as ‘casuals’ for years just to avoid paying them benefits; locking them in during night-shifts; not paying for even the most essential safety equipment; dumping waste and effluent anywhere to save money. Noble? Not quite.

Enlightened business is different. Our leading corporations are setting some standards in this area: respecting the freedom to associate; outlawing the paying of bribes or the support of political parties; eliminating child labour from their supply chains; eschewing manipulative marketing of harmful products to vulnerable groups. They were not always like that. And if we’re honest, this new-found wisdom is in no small measure the result of the unrelenting efforts of those same damned activists.

Nike and Shell, for example, were once targeted ruthlessly by human-rights campaigners around the world. They are now at the vanguard of installing mechanisms for preventing and monitoring child labour and environmental destruction, respectively. The world has learned some lessons about activists; ignoring them doesn’t make them go away; and fighting them is a loser’s game.

That opens up the possibility of meaningful partnerships, and it is one we should not let go begging. We are all, do-gooders and profit-bookers alike, looking for the same thing, after all. Are sustainability, good people practices and responsible marketing not creating the right result for everybody? Of course they are. The only people resisting this sort of welcome change to the practice of business are those whose game is stuck in the Victorian era.

Both sides need to let fresh air into closed minds. The best businesses do not let activists build up the pressure – they take control of the ethics agenda themselves. And activists must learn some truths in turn: the best ones are not boneheaded enough to think they alone are the protectors of all that is decent and right; most do not imagine that brainless confrontation is the only way to achieve a result.

Dialogue and mutual understanding can take us a long way. Let us indeed raise the game. We have no need for the backward model of business – the one that regards workers as sub-human and the environment as a dustbin. That is not only bad business, it’s bad, full stop. We can all still tell right from wrong – but too many don’t want to.

Better business, though, is not a matter for Corporate Affairs. It is about the soul of the corporation, and the guardian of that is the Chief Executive Officer. Many more need to step up to the line.

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