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Bonga Ntuli | 10 October 2023

The construction sector must adopt a focused approach to social, economic, and environmental justice.

SA finds itself amid a complex web of social, economic and environmental crises. While some progress has been made towards achieving the universally endorsed sustainable development goals (SDGs), the persistent legacy of segregated development continues to hinder the country’s pursuit of sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

Despite being classified as an upper middle-income nation and boasting one of Africa’s largest economies, SA grapples with an alarming distinction: it holds the world’s highest ranking for inequality and unemployment rates. Compounding this, during a global era of climate upheaval the nation stands as Africa’s leading polluter, contributing the highest volume of carbon emissions across the continent.

To bolster governmental endeavours towards realising the SDGs, diverse sectors in SA must closely monitor the social and environmental resources cultivated through their corporate social investments. It is paramount for each sector to ensure these resources possess the capacity to yield sustainable, inclusive returns in social, economic and environmental domains.

At the crux of all three dimensions lies the most pivotal resource — human capital. This encompasses the reservoir of skills individuals employ to create economic value in their surroundings. However, to transcend the focus merely on economic gains the concept of human capitalisation must evolve, transforming into a process that not only generates profits but enriches transferable human proficiencies and contributes to environmental rejuvenation.

Traditionally, the human capitalisation process starts in formal education institutions and extends through professional development in employment or entrepreneurial ventures. In SA, though, a significant portion of the population — a staggering 48.3% of the unemployed in the first quarter of 2023 — becomes entangled in the human capitalisation value chain and falls by the wayside.

Among the unemployed, 48.3% hold education levels below matric, 40.7% possess matric as their highest educational attainment, a mere 2.7% hold tertiary qualifications, 7.5% boast other tertiary qualifications, and 0.7% are classified under the category “other”. Further worsening the issue, 44.7% of the working-age population between 15 and 34 years old remained classified as not in employment, education or training. This demographic, lacking matric qualifications and devoid of participation in formal learning, emerges as the most susceptible to unemployment. Added to this, more than 716,000 graduates applied for the monthly R350 social grant in January 2023, according to officials.

In a nation where human potential languishes, the repercussions extend across society, fuelling social regression. The consequences ripple across the socioeconomic spectrum. A survey by PwC, “Global Workforce Hopes & Fears 2022”, highlights the factors contributing to the worldwide loss of human capital in recent times. The survey underscores that instilling personal fulfilment and empowerment in social institutions holds the potential to amplify wellbeing and productivity across these establishments, yielding positive outcomes on individual, professional, and even societal levels. Strategies promoting personal fulfilment and empowerment necessitate the development of specialised, scarce skills, equipping individuals to navigate market dynamics and respond innovatively.

PwC emphasises that “leaders must recognise that employees can either be a force multiplier or a detractor. Research ... reveals that the workforce represents the foremost risk to growth, while also serving as the primary conduit for implementing growth-orientated strategies.”

To augment corporate social impact during upskilling employees should extend beyond specific job requisites. The emphasis should pivot towards cultivating transferable skills, enabling continuous reinvestment in lifelong learning and multifaceted growth.

Additionally, corporations can bolster environmental impact by empowering workers with an awareness of their role in fostering environmental growth, nurturing active citizenship.

In particular, the construction sector in SA possesses untapped potential for social, economic and environmental justice impact. While recognised for its contribution to the nation’s economic advancement, the sector’s potential effects on social and environmental justice remain largely uncharted. According to the UK Chartered Institute of Building’s socioeconomic analysis, the construction industry wields influence beyond conventional metrics of human productivity and environmental alteration. It substantially shapes individuals’ psychological wellbeing and, on a broader scale, fosters social cohesion.

This sector bears responsibility for erecting and maintaining homes, schools, workplaces, hospitals, roads, bridges, and various essential infrastructure that is pivotal for enhancing citizens’ quality of life.

Given the constant global push for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, SA’s construction sector must adopt a focused approach that concurrently fosters social, economic, and environmental justice in the built environment. For instance, the sector could establish continuous professional development initiatives to upskill low-level construction workers in green building practices.

This would not only empower workers with transferable green construction skills, applicable both in their communities and across diverse industries, but heighten awareness of collective climate action as an imperative of active citizenship.

Consequently, individuals would be equipped to contribute to ecosystem regeneration in their own capacity. And only then can we start to realistically deal with the challenges of a low human capitalisation rate, high unemployment and poverty in our country and its communities.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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