The best is still to come for South Africa

South African flag. Picture: Refilwe Modise

South African flag. Picture: Refilwe Modise

A number of leading international business people join prominent South Africans – from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to Yvonne Chaka Chaka – in believing the best is still to come for South Africa despite its numerous challenges.

They are clear in a book published by multinational management consulting firm McKinsey & Company that while there is much to celebrate in the country, its best years lie ahead if all its resources are properly harnessed.

“The first 21 years of democracy have been an exciting time of growth, transformation, experimentation and nation-building. While all of us involved in this journey have made our fair share of mistakes, we have also built a strong foundation for the future. As this book emphasises, South Africans across society must now work in partnership to roll back poverty and inequality, unlock this country’s talent, and heal the wounds of its bitter past,” McKinsey says in the introduction of the book.

Reimagining South Africa, which contains essays from 22 contributors, was published to mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of McKinsey’s South African office. Its launch on Thursday in Cape Town, coincides with the World Economic Forum on Africa.

The authors look at practical solutions on how South Africa can move forward in a number of areas, such as the economy, education, mining, developing jobs for the youth, and forming better partnerships between the government, labour, business and civil society. Gloria Serobe, executive director of Wiphold, an investment and operating company owned and managed by black women, slams big businesses for not acknowledging its role in apartheid and not stepping up to help deal with current challenges.

“In all the discussions about who’s responsible for the woes of this country and who will lead us forward, there’s one player that seems to get a free pass. I speak of big business. I believe that companies have a duty to help fix our nation but they’ve been shirking that duty for 20 years,” she says in the book.

“The result is that our companies have not embraced their role as a force for positive change in South Africa. You can see it in the way their CEOs conduct themselves. Before I stick my hand up in the air to make a point about how a government policy has failed, I try to fix the problem myself. I am very careful to attempt an improvement before I speak out publicly.”

Serobe says that it is that time business came up with innovative solutions, instead of waiting for government to impose policies such as black economic empowerment or, even worse, getting caught in scandals of collusion such as in the bread and construction industries. She says businesses also need to focus on helping to improve the education system. Many problems at schools are largely administrative and logistical, and these are areas in which business excels.

Sizwe Nxsana, First Rand Limited CEO and chairman of the board of trustees of the National Education Collaboration Trust, agrees that education is key and says that in order for South Africa to prosper, the state of the education system needs to be addressed urgently. He says the necessary reforms need to be crafted around a national integrated digital strategy.

“Of course, there isn’t a magic wand that can be waved to produce graduates who can effortlessly take their place in the global age. But there is an urgent need to examine the integration of technology in our schools, and how it can be leveraged and used for the purposes of learning and teaching throughout the entire education ecosystem.

“Just to be clear, what I’m talking about here is not simply giving children laptops or tablets as tools to help learning in and outside the classroom,” he says. “But I am referring to something much more profound. What I believe is needed is a new IT curriculum that goes beyond the screen and the keyboard; one that teaches our children how an iPad actually works, and how such a device is put together with coding and software.”

Nxasana also says that courses in entrepreneurship, with a strong technological bent, are urgently needed. These skills are needed for the world of work that is constantly changing, he says.

Nxasana also raises concerns about the government’s Telecommunications and Postal Services Department and the Communications Department being split as they should be creating a digital strategy together. “It made no sense to split these away from each other and I’m afraid that we are now drifting further and further from the strategy that is so urgently needed for South Africa. This is going to have a huge negative impact.”

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who heads up the African Union Commission, says that it has become crystal clear to her since her new posting three years ago that South African needs to fully embrace being part of the African continent if it wants to unlock its economic potential.

“We need to start by changing mindsets. We get irritated with foreigners when they treat Africa as one country, as if we were not a continent of over a billion people and 55 sovereign states. But the global trend toward regional blocs must remind us that integration and unity are the only way for Africa to leverage its competitive advantage,” she says.

Dlamini-Zuma believes the transport sector in general, with its desperate need for expensive infrastructure, is rife with opportunities that no single country can take advantage of. Together, African countries can improve the economic outlook for all by knitting the continent together with ports, highways and railroads. This will also result in jobs and training.”

Jeff Immelt, CEO and chairman of General Electric Company, also punts education and infrastructure development as key to developing the South African economy. However, he adds that the business environment, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that can integrate into local and global supply chains, needs to be improved.

“As an example, for each job that GE hires directly, we create multiple jobs for outside suppliers, many of which are SMEs. SMEs as a whole are abundant job generators and help to foster a climate for entrepreneurs to grow and prosper. To succeed, they need to have an environment that provides them with market opportunity and with support to achieve the necessary quality, volume and reliability to meet the needs of global supply chains,” says Immelt.

“In short, there is no single recipe for success. Sustained investments in infrastructure, health and education have been key ingredients of success, enabling the labour force to increase productivity and compete on a global scale. Policies and reforms were not dogmatic – adjustments were made to get results.”

South Africa’s former finance minister, Trevor Manuel, says the objectives of the country’s National Development Plan (NDP), which include ending poverty and significantly reducing inequality by 2030, are ambitious. To achieve them, a national commitment and effort just as profound as that which brought South Africans together immediately before and after 1994, was needed.

He says recent initiatives such as Operation Phakisa, which is aimed at fast-tracking the delivery of priorities in the NDP by accelerating investment in the oceans economy and mining sectors, is a good example of the kind of collaboration needed.

“More such joint problem-solving is needed, both to unlock growth and job creation in key parts of the economy, and to drive improvement in education, crime prevention, and other important areas.”

The message in the book from Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who is hailed by many as one of Africa’s greatest musicians, is that freedom brings great responsibility, and South Africans have to be wary of becoming complacent. “For me, any reflection on South Africa’s freedom must begin with one amazing man: President Nelson Mandela. As I say in the song I wrote and performed for him in 2013, he was not only a leader, but also a teacher – he taught us how to be free, how to forgive, and how to live and work together.

“As Madiba’s example showed us so vividly, freedom and responsibility should go hand in hand. The more freedom we have, the more responsibility we have to care for each other and our communities, to educate and improve ourselves, to create and produce, and to fulfill our destinies as individuals and as a nation.”




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