South Africa’s Next Miracle
(Delivered at the 11th Annual Oliver Empowerment Award Gala Dinner on 3 May 2012)
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
Here is an often-told story that remains amazing to this day and will most likely remain so for some time to come:
A man who should have been given the death penalty was given a life sentence. That man could have died in jail, but he did not. Instead, he lived to help negotiate a virtually bloodless handover of power from his jailers to his people. That done, he managed to stop his people from seeking revenge and led them to the reconciliatory path that has guided them to this day and thus created what is now known as South Africa’s political miracle. This is the story that has brought us here today, where I can address you on a night when companies are being awarded for their empowerment credentials.
I love this Mandela-driven part of our history as a country.
When people from abroad ask me why I did not seek revenge, given what was done to me under apartheid, insisting that if they were in my shoes, they would have, it feels wonderful to be able to say; This is not the path we chose?
I love saying that, in politics, we chose to make peace with the past, leave it back there where it belongs and, together, looked to the future and asked, united as one people, what we would like to see there, what country we would like to build, explaining that this is how this unlikely marriage between the oppressor and the oppressed was forged.
It was not an easy marriage to bring to life because we came from such different worlds. But in the end, we agreed on a common view on how to handle religion. We came to an understanding about how to view sex and sexual orientation. We were in sink too about our political systems and the politics we wanted our country to subscribe to. And so, you can argue that we tackled the hardest issues and came to the conclusion that we could go down the isle for better or for worse until death did us part.
Sadly though, like most couples who marry, we never discussed financial issues.
This is a serious oversight because over 50% of all marriages end up in divorce because of financial incompatibility. For a country like ours, where the marriage covenant is between the super rich and the hungry and homeless, a disagreement that leads to the possibility of divorce could be deadly.
This is not difficult to understand given that there is very little use for freedom if you have no money to enjoy it with. What is the point of having the freedom to live anywhere you want to live in your country, when you can’t even afford the cost of materials to build a shack? By extension, the constitution holds no value for those amongst us who have nothing to protect. If my life is riddled with disease, no education, starvation and joblessness what value does the right to life hold in my life? If my life has no value to me, what value can your life have in my eyes? If I do not value life, who around me is safe? And if we are not safe, how can we call ourselves free?
This brings up the sad conclusion that South Africa’s Mandela-driven political miracle might be a sort of house of cards, a flimsy structure, built on quicksand, a disaster really, waiting to happen because too many amongst us have no means by which to enjoy its resultant fruits.
And so I have had to ask myself: Why is it that words like “empowerment” have become swearwords? Why have phrases like “economic freedom” become so thoroughly feared? And since when has the desire for wealth become a dirty desire? Why is it that this is the case in our nation when in other countries, better countries, countries with thriving economies, the need for economic emancipation, the desire for wealth and the ability to empower others are the very fuel for economic growth?
I was being interviewed on Radio 702 once. This young white man called in and said that he was leaving the country because, as a qualified metallurgical engineer he could not get a job in this country. He said he had gone to an interview where at the end he had been told that unfortunately he could not be hired because the position was reserved for blacks.
I asked him why he had been interviewed for an hour before anybody realized that he was white and therefore the wrong candidate for the job on offer. He said he did not know. I reminded him how long it takes to produce a metallurgical engineer and how few of them there are worldwide and asked him if he was sure that the company was willing to wait that long, some sixteen odd years, simply because he was white and they wanted blacks. He seemed confused. Then I said to him, son, go and brush up on your interview skills. I am convinced that your interviewer did not know how to tell you that you did something wrong at the interview, that you did not fit his company’s profile somehow, and lied to you.
This is one of the reasons why moneyed South Africa is resisting Black Economic Empowerment. We are constantly being fed the untruth that every time a white person fails, it is because there is a black person standing in the way. We are being fed the lie that black prosperity equals white poverty. A white kid goes for an interview, fails to impress and is told it is because of black job reservation when we all know that there is no such thing in South Africa as job reservation for blacks! When this rubbish is fed to us every day of our lives, we become an economically divided society with two communities standing against each other instead of standing together to prosper in unison.
The desire for South Africa’s economic success should be driven by the desire for each and every South African to see no South African living below the middle class line. The fear that has been instilled in us of the financial success of the other, the warped belief that one group’s success signals the demise of the other is unhealthy and wrong. It is holding us back from realizing our truest potential as a nation.
The fact is that since 1994, the rich of this country have become even richer than they were and could be under apartheid, richer than they have ever dreamed! During the same period, the gap between them and the poor has grown to the point where we have now surpassed Brazil, which had held that dubious distinction of having the widest gap between the rich and poor for quite some time. In a sense then, and ironically, South Africa’s political miracle has resulted in the impoverishment of the very people who brought it about.
There is, today, a desperate need for this country to correct this. Believe what you may, but if the wealthy of Zimbabwe had not hogged all the riches post Zimbabwean liberation, if they had not refused to hire poor Zimbabweans after Mugabe had educated them to the highest levels he possibly could and help them attain economic freedom, if those moneyed Zimbabweans had said to their poor counterparts, “We might come from a politically divided past, but we will forge an economically united future with you”, Mugabe would not have had anybody to incite to kill and plunder and ruin Zimbabwe’s economy.
Selfishness in the face of a generous people is a recipe for disaster.
The poor of South Africa fought the political fight and won. We could have gone to every rich home and slit every throat we could find and the world would have understood, given what we endured under apartheid. Instead, we chose to forget the past and build a political future that benefits all South Africans, rich and poor.
The time for this gesture of goodwill to find reward is long overdue.
Let’s face it, even Black Economic Empowerment, as it is practiced today does not begin to do this. We all know the model; A poor guy borrows money from the rich guy to buy 26% of the rich guy’s company. The government then rewards the rich guy’s company with contracts and accolades. The poor guy earns nothing because he is too busy paying off the highly inflated price of his share of the rich guy’s company while the rich guy makes more money than he has ever dreamed possible. The poor guy finally gets close to finishing paying off the rich guy but by then the rich guy has found a reason to kick out the poor guy and replace him with another poor guy who starts afresh, in debt. And so the cycle repeats itself.
It is a model, by the way, that says to poor people, you are useless on your own, so your own government won’t trust you with a contract unless you find a rich guy who is a majority shareholder in whatever vehicle you want us to give a contract to. It is a model that says to the rich guy, you are correct to think the poor guy is inferior. Let’s face it, what can he do without your help and say so? It is a toxic model based on prejudice that perpetuates apartheid in the economic arena today.
I pray that 100% of the companies being awarded here tonight do not operate like this. I pray that you all work differently.
Having said that, I’d like you to forget how you have worked up to date. Whether you were a generous giver or a selfish taker, forget that because I have a new challenge. Let us all join forces and together seek to create South Africa’s next miracle. Whatever you do as a company today, or as an individual citizen of this country, make it a challenge to contribute on a daily basis to the upliftment of all of South Africa to an economic status above the middle class. Let’s see if we can’t do this over the next twenty years. How can you and I, as companies and as individuals, contribute to making all of South Africa a middle class country by 2032?
Ask yourself this question. Ask it of any partner you might choose to work with. Ask of it as a test of whether or not any of your economic activities are of any value to this country. For what is economic prosperity if the majority is left outside the banquet hall but a recipe for calamity. The idea, you see, is to help this country rise, prosper and thrive economically in its totality. Japan’s economy is open for all Japanese people to thrive in it. Sweden’s economy does this. So does the German economy. China is working hard to get there and make all her citizens have an economic space to play in. We should not be left behind because of the remnants of our shameful apartheid past.
Having goodwill as a basic tenet for doing business.
Fostering a desire to rise with, and not at the expense of your neighbour.
Believing that to truly prosper and be safe, none of us must be left behind.
Having a deep love for this country’s citizens in their totality.
These are the principles that will bring us South Africa’s next miracle.
If you know that Bill Gates and his contemporaries in the early days of Silicon Valley believed in the simple fact that they could only become billionaires if all their colleagues could become millionaires, you will understand these principles. You are bound to reap more reward simply by making sure that those around you are not left to starve.
Empower with the view to uplifting South Africa in her totality. This is South Africa’s next and necessary miracle; Uplifting all of South Africa to live above the middle class line. Call it, “Beyond 2032”. This is the only miracle that will strengthen our political miracle and turn it into a properly anchored, steady and strong house that we can all live in, that safeguards us all and every one of our freedoms, that we can all be truly proud of. This is what Mandela’s political legacy was designed to help us achieve.
If our marriage crumbles, our country will go down in flames. We have to take this necessary next step. Otherwise Mandela’s entire life will have been in vain. We have all the rights that any human being needs to live a good political life, thanks to this great man. Now let’s improve on his legacy and help everybody generate the wealth to enjoy these rights with because the last thing this country needs is for the political marriage between the rich and the poor to end in divorce. Keeping this marriage alive is too big a job for our largely uninspiring and uninspired politicians. This is a job for you and I. This is a job for the fifty million. This is our job because this is our country.
Now please, if you have a glass in front of you, whatever is in it, raise it like so.
Now repeat after me:
To all the winners tonight, congratulations. Well done. Now take it to this next level.
Thank you for listening.