The welcome is rarely warm when a bank manager makes a visit. The news to be imparted by those who hold our purse-strings and furnish our plastic is not usually good. So one would think that the greeting might be chillier still when the visiting manager is from Barclays and the institution being visited is South African. But in the tiny Thembalethu primary school just outside the city of Durban, the salutation given to Andrew Bainbridge, Barclays' 38-year-old boss for Africa and the Middle East, is indeed king-sized.
Inside the dusty school compound - which is surrounded by multi-layered barbed wire and with a 'No Guns!' sign on the entrance gate - a group of the young female pupils kitted out in traditional Zulu dress perform a strenuous 20-minute dance in Bainbridge's honour. It leaves them breathless and sweating. Bainbridge gives a speech of thanks and we are shown around the modest classrooms.
Life is tough in this neighbourhood. It was always thus. When Gandhi lived just down the road in the late 1890s, harsh injustice kept him busy as a young lawyer. But with apartheid now cast aside, jobs are still few and levels of violent crime appallingly high. As if that wasn't enough, in Thembalethu nearly 60% of the school's pupils have lost one or both parents, mostly to 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. If they do know, many will keep quiet about it because the stigma associated with the disease is so strong.
Bainbridge is here because his bank - recently returned to the country after a 20-year absence - is trying in a modest but purposeful way, in alliance with Unicef, to do something about the problems of these children.
Barclays has not shirked from taking the controversial approach of giving £350,000 to the Girl's Education Movement (GEM). GEM was launched by Unicef in Uganda in 2001 and is a child-led education programme that is is 'designed to promote girls' rights and their position in society by promoting equal access to education for girls as the key'. Its aim in essence is to teach girls in Africa how to stand up to men and boys. 'Don't look down upon the girls' is a phrase one hears in the GEM class at Thembalethu.
This is all a far cry from overdrafts in Oswestry and interest-only mortgages in Merton, but it's what globalisation means in the 21st century. Barclays is recognised for its enlightenment when it comes to corporate social responsibility - in last year's MT list of Britain's Most Admired Companies, Barclays came top of the CSR rankings in the banking sector. Nevertheless, sceptics might think it odd for a British bank to be involved in a sociological experiment that sounds like a throwback to Ken Livingstone's days at the GLC.
But, as Bainbridge explains, there is a real need for it in South Africa.
The South African police service figures show that of 55,114 reported rapes in 2004-05, 40% (22,486) were against children, and that at least 60 children under the age of 18 are sexually abused and raped every day.
(The police estimate that as many as two-thirds of rapes are not reported, due to the survivor's economic dependence on the perpetrator.) In practical terms, Unicef's research has shown that if all children receive a complete primary education, about 700,000 cases of HIV in young adults would be prevented each year.
We leave and make our way further inland into KwaZulu-Natal and Amatata primary school, deep in a rural settlement. The local inhabitants are subsistence farmers, but many are unemployed. Few households have running water or electricity. The whole school turns out to greet Bainbridge and our entourage. There are poetry recitals from GEM learners, and further presentations and speeches.
In a classroom, we are shown a community mapping project. With the help of their teacher, a small group of kids under 10 are creating a map of the local area that shows 'safe' and 'unsafe' areas.
Many walk miles through the countryside to get to school each day. Children point out where there was 'a man with a knife'; another shows a place near a wood where there are 'ghosts'. The idea here is for them to share information about where it is safe to walk and spots they should avoid.
Simple, but effective.
The school principal is Edna Godlwana and she has been asked to take us to see the house of one of her pupils, a four-year-old called Samakele. She takes the small, silent boy's hand and we march off down the road to his house, followed by a long crocodile comprising half the school, curious to see what is going on. The child is an orphan who has lost both his parents to HIV/Aids and is now looked after, with his sister, by his grandmother.
There is even a suggestion that the boy was abused by a carer after the death of his parents and before he came into the guardianship of his grandmother.
The family lives in a small stone and corrugated-iron shack, soot-blackened and with a mud floor. Inside, it is impeccably tidy. Samakele is hanging on tight to a half-filled bottle of mineral water, which he has picked up at the reception. His grandmother is embarrassed by our presence and all the unwanted attention. The whole tableau is a very sad sight indeed, and a reminder of how lucky the rest of us are.
Although Bainbridge hadn't even done his O-levels when his employer pulled out of the country, Barclays and South Africa are inextricably linked in the minds of Brits of a certain age. The force of the anti-apartheid movement's push against 'Boerclaysbank', a bell-wether, was huge and one of the earliest examples of direct consumer action on a corporate.
When disinvestment occurred in 1986 after years of campaign and protest, it was a major blow to the South African regime. Barclays was forced to walk away from the biggest commercial banking operation in the country, with 1,000 outlets and a staff of more than 25,000. The final straw had come when it was revealed that the bank had lent money to the pariah South African government.
Then, last year, that association was renewed when Barclays bought 60% of Absa, one of the country's largest banks, for nearly £3 billion. 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 operates all over a continent that is the last truly emerging market in the world.
In South Africa, there's plenty of room for growth. Migrant labour is a big issue and men move to cities to work, often without a safe means to send cash back to their families. Many use taxis for the purpose and half the country's population keeps its cash under the mattress.
The Absa deal is the baby of David Roberts, Barclays' board director for international retail. In 2000, 20% of Barclays' profit came from abroad.
With the purchase of Absa, that figure is now about a third and the target is 50%. MT met Roberts in Cape Town, where he was greeting a fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles that had travelled all the way from Canary Wharf, raising money and taking part in community projects on the way.
Roberts was a student when anti-apartheid activists were busy protesting, hurling eggs and filling Barclays cash-dispensers with Araldite glue.
There must have been a few raised eyebrows among his friends when Roberts joined the bank as a management trainee.
'There's no doubt that protest can be enormously effective - the damage to our reputation was huge,' he admits. 'Our student business in the UK had fallen through the floor and our business in the US was also badly affected. So when we disinvested (from South Africa) in 1986, it was financially the real deal - we sold it for less in real terms than we had bought it for in 1925.'
From the contacts that Barclays has had with the present ANC administration, they feel exonerated in making two decisions - 'We left at the right time and we have returned at the right time,' says Roberts. 'There's no doubt our return has huge symbolic value and is seen as a big vote of confidence in the government.' The South African economy is currently growing at about 4% and the rand is stable. Barclays is not alone in its investment.
Vodafone, Mittal Steel and Tata have all made similar moves recently.
Siemens and BMW never left ...
So what about the issue of CSR? It is surely a good and sensible thing that Barclays pays throughout Africa for the anti-retroviral treatment for its staff members and their families who carry the HIV virus. But is it really the place of business to be involved in trying to re-engineer the social fabric of a country in the way Barclays is doing in South Africa?
Roberts is unapologetic. 'I was born in Birkenhead, so I know what Lever and Port Sunlight means,' he says. 'Is what we do good morally? Yes, but it's also good for business. Through the power of education, we're trying to change deep-rooted prejudice. Why? It's not that we happen to have strong moral or religious views of the world, but because these bad things damage the perception of the countries in which we operate. They damage the talent and the infrastructure, the lifeblood of these countries. Of course, GEM is intensely political, but we don't duck away from anything.'
An even greater moral and business dilemma exists for Barclays next door to South Africa in Zimbabwe. This used to be one of Barclays' biggest overseas territories and it has 1,000 people in a country on the brink of collapse and with sections of its population starving. Barclays ceased to make 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.
SOUTH AFRICA - GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
- Strong business confidence
- A stable rand
- Healthy consumer spending
- An emerging black middle class
- Johannesburg stock exchange at new highs
- A growth rate of 5.1%, compared with a forecast of 4.1%, is probable
- Major foreign investment, including Barclays, Vodafone, Mittal Steel and Tata
- South African companies continue to expand into the rest of Africa and the Middle East
- Tourism has grown rapidly
- A skills shortage threatens economic growth
- A deteriorating infrastructure will have to be improved before the 2010 World Cup
- Poverty is breeding local community violence
- Crime takes a heavy toll on the quality of life and the economy
- HIV/Aids is widespread
- Delivery of social services is disappointing