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The events of the scandal involving firing of moderators a year ago made some things clear. Stack Overflow did several things wrong in that affair, but taking a firm stance against anti-trans members of the community (genuinely anti-trans people, not people who, in the interest of professionalism, write in a general-neutral manner by default) was not one of them. SO had allowed offensive behavior to grow and they pledged to do better.

I am therefore concerned by Stack Overflow's acquisition by Prosus, which is owned by Naspers. Naspers supported apartheid in South Africa, and refused to cooperate with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, that was meant to elucidate the extent of Naspers's involvement in apartheid. Naspers made a half-hearted apology two decades later.

I understand that almost every extremely old company can be faulted for doing something grossly oppressive by modern standards. For instance, Volkswagen was run by the Nazis. Citibank basically colonized Haiti. But these companies pledged to do better, eventually came to terms with their nasty pasts, and (hopefully) tried to take steps towards fixing their past mistakes. Naspers clearly didn't do anything of the sort.

It goes without saying that for the most part, no company mentioned in this post is being openly racist or similarly offensive any more, but simply stopping the pattern of misbehavior is not enough, at least in my opinion.

How does Stack Overflow plan to deal with the fact that they're indirectly owned by a company that has a history of being run by white supremacists?

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    I've edited your question because it had a lot of things in it that would probably side-track this from discussing the main point. Still, it would help your post if you could include links/backup for the claims that other companies pledged to do better/came to terms with their nasty pasts, while Naspers didn't. Because right now we have to trust your blue gravatar that they did, which doesn't often go well. – Tinkeringbell Mod Jun 7 at 8:14
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    physics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/13609/… related and rather well written post on physics meta – Journeyman Geek Mod Jun 7 at 8:27
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    @JourneymanGeek A few excellent answers in that thread too, definitely worth a read. This discussion is likely to just tread the same ground as those (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). – zcoop98 Jun 7 at 14:29
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    Curious, what effect are you trying to achieve with this post? What exactly are you proposing for SE (or us) to do? – HolyBlackCat Jun 7 at 20:49
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    I have just noticed this account is opened only for two days and seems to have been opened for the sole purpose of raising this issue. It's not a member of any other sub sites – StephenG Jun 8 at 7:27
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    Yup. Though if one wanted to raise a opinion they didn't feel safe expressing, it might be a logical thing to use a throwaway account for. I do think it's a bit sus tho – Journeyman Geek Mod Jun 8 at 12:38
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Just to be clear, I have no connection with Naspers now or in the past and only this recent acquisition of SE/SO has brought them to my attention. I also have no personal connection with South Africa.

How does Stack Overflow plan to deal with the fact that they're indirectly owned by a company that has a history of being run by white supremacists?

TLDR SE/SO is owned by a company and it's not realistic to expect them to complain for you about this.

I imagine it would be exceptionally difficult to find a company from that era in South Africa that could not be painted as racist then if you wanted to.

The events being discussed are a quarter of a century ago, and the company has existed successfully in the "new" South Africa (and beyond) since then. How many of the old mangement team (and shareholders and so on) are still in place ? Of those that are, how many could be said to have been in a position to change anything or did more or less than the majority of white South Africans of the time ? Are we attempting to visit the sins of the past generation on the current generation ?

But these companies pledged to do better, eventually came to terms with their nasty pasts, and (hopefully) tried to take steps towards fixing their past mistakes. Naspers clearly didn't do anything of the sort.

I did indicate in a comment on Physics Meta that in 2019 Naspers appointed a black woman to the post of CEO South Africa. This alone surely says they are not now a racist company. From their point of view they have moved on and apologized (probably to the greatest extent their lawyers would allow - no lawyers wants a client to apologize to the extent they would be open to potentially unlimited liability claims).

Whatever about that, it is unrealistic to ask a company owned by another to police the company that owns it. This doesn't make any sense. It would be the tail wagging the dog. The owners would simply replace the complainers, and regardless of whether their complaint was justified, but simply because it would be ludicrous to expect any business to allow it's employees to attack it over such an extremely controversial idea. StackExchange/Overflow cannot in any way influence Naspers on this subject.

It goes without saying that for the most part, no company mentioned in this post is being openly racist or similarly offensive any more, but simply stopping the pattern of misbehavior is not enough, at least in my opinion.

And this is the crux of the problem. What do you want Naspers to do ?

Again, from their point of view legally they're done with this and financially they clearly aren't affected by it. In practical terms the company is reformed (as far as I can tell).

Anyone who remains uncomfortable with that has choices :

  • Stop doing business with them.
  • Do business but email etc. relevant politicians, etc. to seek to put pressure on them.
  • Write to the paper or post a YouTube video - but please have a plan, a goal, that's realistic. Just wanting "more" doesn't do anything - it's vague.
  • Do business with them and let it slide.

But what you really don't have is any realistic expectation that SE/SO is going to be in a position to complain for you. That's not how business works now, or ever has. If you want something done, you (and other like minded people) have to do it.

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    I think Naspers bears a little more responsibility for South Africa's racist policies than the average company because its newspaper was closely associated with the National Party. That said, I agree that there's not much chance anything will chance unless there is a solid plan. As you say, the crux is what Naspers is expected to do. – Jon Ericson Jun 8 at 17:29
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As a preface, I should mention that there are different ethical systems. For someone who subscribes to deontological ethics this answer might not be useful. I'm approaching it from a more consequentialist angle. In other words, because of Naspers' unsavory past some people might feel duty-bound to limit interactions with subsidiaries (including Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange after the deal goes through). But others may be more concerned about how their own actions might result in negative (or positive) outcomes.

Now I first noticed that Prosus was owned by Naspers when I considered the companies as investments. I found, as you did, that Naspers has had a long history of supporting South Africa's National Party and did not participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process. Whether the apology signals a real change in company culture isn't something we can determine without knowing a lot more about what has changed internally. While it certainly is a necessary step, apologies do not suffice no matter how sincere.

As an investor (and I purchased shares of Naspers this week), the consequence of purchasing shares is (minutely) raising their share price. In turn that (imperceptibility) helps them by reducing (ever so slightly) their need to repurchase shares. Meanwhile I have (nearly nonexistent) voting rights by virtue of holding a fractional ownership interest in the company. In other words, it's quite hard to have influence (positive or negative) on a multi-billion dollar company as an individual.

The same can be said of contributing to Stack Exchange sites. There's virtually no chance the company would notice the effects of a single person refraining from asking and answering questions. As huge as $1.8 billion sounds, it's about 1% of Prosus' market capitalization. Again, individual members of the community have very little influence.

Now there is a precedent for a small subsidiary changing the way a large holding company operates. After Berkshire Hathaway bought The Pampered Chef, a consultant circulated a petition that resulted in the larger company ending a program for allowing shareholders to direct charitable giving. (I happen to think the program was a positive thing, but that's not the point of the story.) Protestors had picketed Berkshire annual meetings (a real event for many investors) to little effect. But until the issue had a meaningful impact on a subsidiary, the company did nothing.

In my opinion, Stack Overflow won't be able to change Naspers' policies unless:

  1. there exists a very clear story about how their business is impacted and
  2. an even clearer remedy.

The difficulty I have here is that it's difficult to know what Naspers can do about it's past. This might very well be a result of my ignorance. Perhaps there is a way for the company to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process at this late date. As many of us have learned recently, merely apologizing for past behavior is not sufficient to repair the damage. There must be some concrete action the company could take that would remove the stain on its reputation. If there is no such remedy, they have little incentive to act.

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    Except for hostile takeovers, corporations voluntarily decide if they are purchased. Actions often have consequences. I have noticed that since StackExchange treated former moderator Monica so poorly that many of the best contributors and moderators have left StackExchange. The reputation of StackExchange continues to suffer from those self-inflicted wounds. The new ownership has already resulted in a decrease in the value of StackExchange by at least one very prominent contributor deciding to leave until a new owner is found. – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Jun 11 at 7:06
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    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket The choice to accept a takeover or not is not voluntary in any meaningful way, I think. Typically major shareholders seek to make a return on investment, often by wholesale selling of their interest in a company. That's never a line management choice - it's normal that even CEOs and CFOs have relatively little influence on the decision. If major shareholders decide to cash in their stake, there's no stopping it. – StephenG Jun 11 at 13:50
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    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket: I don't think individual contributors have much impact on the value of the company. I think what happened to Monica hurt because other contributors felt undervalued as a result. Executives have a fiduciary duty to maximize the value returned to investors and while I think some of the actions of the last few years have harmed company value, selling to the highest bidder isn't one of them. (One can argue whether or not they have a duty to avoid selling to certain buyers. I don't know if this was a factor in this case.) – Jon Ericson Jun 11 at 19:33
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    @JonEricson wrote "Executives have a fiduciary duty to maximize the value returned to investors..." Do you have a source for your claim? I initially thought so too, but I have been told multiple times this is not true. If you have a source for your claim, please post it here: money.stackexchange.com/questions/141603/… – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Jun 12 at 2:29
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    @JonEricson wrote "I don't think individual contributors have much impact on the value of the company. " It's just like voting in an election. It's the cumulative effect that makes very significant differences. SE definitely took a big hit after their last self-inflicted fiasco. At the very least, Physics SE is now going to take another big hit, and I am aware of several other significant SE contributors that have left SE as a result of this issue. I am considering leaving too, and that would result in the loss of yet another active moderator and contributor to SE. – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Jun 12 at 3:12

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