IAN MANN REVIEWS | A shot of inspiration for SA-pessimists

The Upside of Down: How Chaos and Uncertainty Breed Opportunity in South Africa by Bruce Whitfield

If you are not feeling the funk right now, the chances are that you don’t really understand how bad things are. If you have listened to or read ‘motivational’ books or talks, you know how short-lived is the ‘motivation’ you feel. That said – here is my take on Bruce Whitfield’s book.

Buy this book immediately you finish reading this column. Read it from cover to cover. You will feel a very different motivation. When you are empowered with fact-based reasons to be optimistic and motivated – that optimism and motivation lasts.   

Whitfield doesn’t gloss over the horrific state of our country and highlight the positive. He rubs the awfulness all over your face, to the point where you start questioning – where can the optimism in the subtitle possibly come from?!

“South Africa is a deeply challenging place in which to live and work” and more so for the majority of citizens who are poor, have little education and live in badly serviced communities.

We all know of the awful people whom we read about in the current non-fiction books about South Africa. We know they should be in jail but instead are fighting vigorously to remain free to continue their careers of looting and plunder.

“Most of our politicians don’t have the slightest idea of the seriousness of our financial position.” In a sentence: we’re spending too much and earning too little. And the government offers pipe dreams paraded as ‘economic strategy’!

Being born in poverty, remaining in poverty and passing poverty on to one’s children seems to be inevitable, with only one way out – education. While the Department of Education plays with the data, the brutal fact is that SA’s publicly educated young people barely stand a chance in globally competitive job markets. Poor education is a severe brake on growth.

But there’s a plus side

The are many, many remarkable people you will be introduced to throughout this easy to read book who are making a real, positive difference to the country. 

There is Louise van Rhyn, founder of the NGO Partners for Possibility, that facilitates private-sector executives’ adoption of a school and to work with the head teacher to improve the management and administration, so real teaching can happen.

The result is that almost 1 000 under-resourced government schools are applying business principles of team-building, inspiring staff and getting parents more engaged with their children’s education They are benefiting about 880 000 children.

Consider the provincial chess tournament in the Western Cape, where underprivileged schools demolished the privileged. “Game after game, these children, who during breaks practised their moves on cheap, miniature chess sets … came out on top. (The) township school teams were ranked first in four of the six primary school-age categories.”

What can be done

Partners for Possibility is only one of many educational solutions, some on a volunteer basis, others for profit. Stacey Brewer’s SPARK Schools demonstrate how you can offer superb private school education at a price not higher than the government spends of the ineffective kind. And at scale.

Using data analytics, teachers give differentiated instruction in the class and in IT labs at a globally competitive standard. No child is left behind or needs to be ‘progressed’ to the next grade.

Is improving education and the resultant employability not possible? “Imagine if, instead of blindly funding an education system, government funded each child and gave parents the choice as to where they sent their children to school, and provided schools with the freedom to charge what they wanted for education.” Other successful countries do it.

South Africa can’t continue on this current economic trajectory with stagnant economic growth, rising unemployment and high inequality. “If South Africa was a hospital patient, and GDP the measure of its pulse, the doctor would be telling relatives to get ready for the worst,” Whitfield explains.

The latest statistics show that there are 10.3 million people out of work. Countries with far lower rates of unemployment face far higher levels of civil strife than we see daily.

There’s opportunity

You are probably right to scoff at government’s attempts at intervening in the jobs market and its talk of ‘creating jobs’. But where there is crisis, there is opportunity.

There is a small technology revolution happening in South Africa. Arlene Mulder is one of a growing number training young people to code. At WeThinkCode, anyone between the ages of 16 and 34 who passes an aptitude test can participate free in a two-year coding program. ‘Graduates’ enter the job market with a R25k-a-month salary. It is funded by the banking sector to grow domestic coding skills, critical to success today.

Aisha Pandor’s SweepSouth app has turned people who were previously unemployed into breadwinners. Like the Uber app that rates both the passenger and the driver, giving both the confidence to engage, this app gives women a choice about where and when they work and for whom. This has not something that has traditionally been a feature of South Africa’s domestic-work industry.

Another app, Yoco, provides wireless-payments to small companies. Abalobi is an app that connects fishing communities with their customers, cutting out the middleman and providing traceability of the produce to the end consumer. Through a QR code on a key ring that comes with your fish meal, diners can scan it and learn where and when the fish was caught, by whom, and see details about the community where the catch was made.

But South Africa also has many business successes at a global scale. Nandos has 1 000 stores in more than 20 countries. SAB is a global brewing success legend. MTN makes only 30{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} of its revenue in South Africa. And then there is Bidvest, Aspen, and other South African giants who are world-class and world-wide.

That is just nice to know; after all they were always huge, not like your small business, right? Completely wrong! Every huge business started small. Really. And going global isn’t essential either: many huge SA businesses have gone global at awful cost, and possibly the best performing SA retailer Clicks, never did. Neither did Mr Price nor Discovery – after investigation they decided not to go global.

There is always lots to learn from the extraordinarily successful; take the sign in all Bidvest offices: ‘Bidvest does not participate in any recession.’ Of course, it does business in difficult environments, but it chooses to approach the obstacles with a problem-solving mindset.

Discovery’s founder Adrian Gore advises “If it’s not Armageddon, you must be building. If people are worried, prices of opportunities are typically undervalued.”

Christo Wiese notes ‘When a small-business person looks at a so-called big-business person, he thinks to himself, you know, that guy must have had a wonderful blueprint. The truth is that business is all about opportunistic moves. It’s all opportunistically driven, not blueprint-driven. So there was no grand plan.”

Stephen Koseff of Investec told Whitfield: “If it’s in our patch, and life is tough, then it can present an opportunity, but if it’s in our patch and life is running, then everyone is chasing the same opportunity and prices are too high, we give it a miss.”

Again, buy this book immediately and read it from the Rosling-style test in the first chapter, to Bill Clinton’s one phrase advice in the last chapter…It should be compulsory reading for all thoughtful South Africans. You will be pleased you did.

Readability                   Light -+– Serious

Insights                           High +—- Low

Practical                         High —+- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own.

Source Article