Voices

Big brains, big talent can bat for SA’s A-team

2016-06-25 09:08

That South Africa managed to blow back a downgrade to “junk” status is testament to a wonderful national ability: to pull together before a major challenge.

We did it before the World Cup in 2010, and again between January and June this year, to stall what many believed was an inevitable downgrade by the masters of the “electronic herd” - the term journalist Tom Friedman uses to describe the markets - who can determine the fate of national economies in a tick of a rating.

The behind-the-scenes negotiations and alliances struck to leverage networks and show commitment were nothing short of gargantuan.

South Africa is brimming with talent and a lot of that talent was lined up in national effort. Take Jabu Mabuza, the legendary businessman and chairperson of Telkom, who led the unity effort and brought big money to the table.

For the first time, CEOs faced with a loss of an investment-grade rating (corporates can’t be rated higher than the sovereign) put their best energy into bringing real money into the investment pot to support entrepreneurs.

They also clearly worked their networks to stave off the downgrade and to pledge the export of expertise into the state. One of the ideas that made the agencies hold their rating was that private sector expertise would be diffused into state-owned enterprises.

It’s needed if you consider that you can count the number of solvent big parastatals on the fingers of one hand. After many years of working the current affairs patch, it’s with some authority that I note the passion that South Africans have for the future of their land – from top to bottom, we are invested in politics as shorthand for “where is our government taking us?”, as the national conversation will bear testimony to.

And alongside that passion, I often find South Africans keen to serve in the state. These are big brains, often with their own money, who take on the task of serving to make the country better rather than exploiting the opportunity to earn a fat salary.

Mark Barnes, the CEO at the SA Post Office, is the clearest example. He is a wealthy entrepreneur who has a passion to fix the Post Office. I’ve not spoken to any of the other people pictured here who might serve the state well, but their unshakeable commitment to the country, combined with a skill set, suggests we are not often enough taking advantage of South Africa’s A-team in shaping the nation.

Seasoned businesspeople such as Wendy Luhabe, Sindi Mabaso-Koyana, Peter Vundla and Ketso Gordhan (also a former city manager and director-general) would bring a sharpened focus to economic direction. Mabaso-Koyana has just been appointed to Fifa’s ethics committee to sort out that mess, so imagine what she could do for us.

There is not a single business leader in the Cabinet – a fact that sticks out like a sore thumb when you look at the composition of leading African economies such as Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda. Our brand standing can do with a burnish by someone like Angel Jones, the marketer who spends her life getting South Africans to come home.

After ditching corporate life, Jay Naidoo has become a global development advocate who could yoke together all our development efforts to ensure the trajectory is upward, especially for the working class, a sector that he knows well as a founder of Cosatu.

Our black empowerment national efforts are so mangled that scholar and consultant Duma Gqubule, who eats, breathes and sleeps BEE, would quickly bring it to rights, while higher education could do with a dose of mathematician and wonder woman Mamokgethi Phakeng, who has just become a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town.

I’m trying to become a more polite person, but I think it’s clear when observing certain global television interviews or reading the Supreme Court of Appeals judgment on digital migration and the fate of free set-top boxes that we are not batting with the best team.

You can see it in anaemic growth and crushing unemployment, as well in the sense I get when travelling on our continent that South Africa is being left behind. The talent we need to change the trajectory and to pull us forward is right there for the cherry-picking.

Perhaps it is not happening because we first need a different cherry-picker in chief.

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December 10 2017