Corporate partnership: Kids' Account

Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today

In the 1980s Barclays was forced to withdraw from South Africa by anti-apartheid protesters who dubbed it 'Boerclaysbank'. Today it is considered to be a leader in corporate social responsibility. Matthew Gwyther joined the Barclays entourage visiting a Unicef partner project aimed at encouraging girls' education in South Africa.

The welcome is rarely warm when a bank manager makes a visit. The greeting might be chillier still when the manager is from Barclays and the institution visited is in South Africa. But here in the tiny Thembalethu Primary school just outside the city of Durban, the reception for Andrew Bainbridge, the 38-year-old chief operating officer at Barclays Africa and Middle East, is king-sized.

In fact, Bainbridge is greeted by a group of young pupils kitted out in traditional Zulu dress, who perform a strenuous 20-minute dance in his honour.

Bainbridge is here because his bank - which recently returned to the country after being forced out in the 1980s by the anti-apartheid movement's push against 'Boerclaysbank' - is supporting Unicef. The charity's Girls' Education Movement, known as Gem, was designed to promote girls' rights and their position in society by promoting equal access to education for girls. Barclays has put up £350,000 for the project.

This is 21st-century globalisation in the flesh. Barclays is recognised to be enlightened when it comes to corporate social responsibility - last year it came top of the rankings in the banking sector in Management Today magazine's list of Britain's most admired companies. It also won the National Business Award for CSR in 2004. Nevertheless, sceptics might think it is an odd thing for a British bank to be getting involved in a sociological experiment that sounds like a throwback to Ken Livingstone's days at the Greater London Council.

As Bainbridge explains, however, there is a real need for such projects in South Africa. Police service figures show that 55,114 rapes were reported in 2004/05 (22,486 of which were against children), and that at least 60 children under the age of 18 are sexually abused and raped each day.

The figures could be much worse: the police estimate that two-thirds of rapes are not reported because of the victim's economic dependence on the perpetrator.

Life is tough in the Thembalethu neighbourhood. Nearly 60 per cent of the school's pupils have lost one or both parents, mostly as a result of HIV/Aids. Nearly six and a half million South Africans carry the virus.

A sizeable number of the children we meet are infected - some know it, some do not. Many will keep quiet because of the stigma associated with the disease. Unicef's research suggests that if all children were to receive a complete primary education, 700,000 cases in young adults could be prevented each year.

We make our way further into KwaZulu-Natal and reach Amatata Primary School in a rural settlement. The locals are subsistence farmers, but many are unemployed. Few households have water or electricity. The whole school turns out to greet Bainbridge and our entourage. In a classroom we are shown a 'community mapping' project in which kids create a map of the local area that shows safe and unsafe areas. Children point out where there was a man "with a knife". The idea is for children to share information about spots they should avoid. Simple but effective.

Next, Edna Godlwana, principal of the school, takes us to the house of one of her pupils, a four-year-old called Samakele. Orphaned by HIV/Aids, he and his sister are now looked after by their grandmother. They live in a small stone and corrugated iron shack with a mud floor. It is impeccably tidy. Samakele is hanging on tightly to a half-filled bottle of water. For Bainbridge this must all be a million miles from overdrafts in Oswestry and mortgages in Mortlake.

Barclays and South Africa are inextricably linked in the minds of British people of a certain age. The anti-apartheid movement's campaign against the bank was one of the earliest examples of direct consumer action against a corporate. Barclays' withdrawal in 1986 was a major blow to the South African regime.

Barclays returned, buying 60 per cent of ABSA, one of the country's largest banks. Aside from any sentiment of completing the circle, the move made a lot of business sense. Barclays has been in Africa for more than a century and 30 per cent of its profits now come from abroad.

The ABSA deal is the baby of David Roberts, chief executive of international and retail commercial banking at Barclays.Third Sector met him in Cape Town, where he was greeting a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles that had driven from Canary Wharf, raising money and taking part in community projects on the way.

Roberts was a student when the anti-apartheid activists were busy protesting, hurling eggs and filling Barclays cash machines with glue. There must have been a few raised eyebrows from his friends when Roberts joined the 'Great Satan' as a management trainee.

"The damage to our reputation was huge," he admits. "Our student business in the UK had fallen through the floor. When we disinvested we sold for less, in real terms, than we had bought it for in 1925."

So what about the whole issue of CSR? It is surely a good thing that Barclays pays throughout Africa for the anti-retroviral treatment for its staff members and their families who carry the HIV virus. But what is the bank's motivation?

Roberts is unapologetic. "Is what we do good morally? Yes, but it's also good for business," he says. "We're trying to change prejudice. Why? It's not because we happen to have strong moral views about the world, but because these things damage the perception of the countries in which we operate. They're damaging the talent and infrastructure, the lifeblood of these countries. Of course, Gem is political, but we don't duck away from anything."

An even greater dilemma exists for Barclays next door to South Africa in Zimbabwe. Barclays ceased to make any money in Zimbabwe some time ago, but it has not yet pulled out. It's hanging on and waiting for things to improve. And there are no audible voices asking it to leave. Yet.

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