Revisiting South Africa: The window and the mirror

I just came back from 2 weeks in South Africa, exactly three years after my first visit there.  My sense of wonder is even stronger than after that first visit. This time, though, I came away with more insights into both the opportunities and challenges South Africa faces – and the ones we face here at home.  The trip was both a window into another world and a mirror that forced me to take a fresh look at my own world.

After all, a zebra may just be another species of horse. But seeing animals like zebras roaming freely makes you look at a lot of animals with a fresh eye.

The window: Incredible diversity and challenges

I dove more deeply into South Africa this trip, but my perspective is still superficial and based on impressions rather than data. I make no claim to expertise. Compared to the last visit, I did spend more time both as a tourist and talking and working with clients. I talked with a wider range of people: black, white, Indian, Afrikaans, men and women, bankers, corporate managers from chemical and insurance companies, lodge managers, artists and craftspeople, a refugee from Zimbabwe, a former political prisoner on Robben Island, professionals deeply involved in environment and sustainability and others deeply involved in Black Economic Empowerment.

The diversity of the country is fascinating and overwhelming.  There is diversity in every dimension including history, landscape, wildlife, cultures. Going from the Cape Town waterfront to Sandton’s wealth to Soweto’s streets to the mountains of northern Limpopo feels like different continents or planets, not different provinces of the same country.

Language is a great indicator of the diversity and complexity: there are 11 official languages, and while English may be the most common language for government and business, it is “only the fifth most spoken home language.” Not to mention that there are three different national capitals in three different provinces.

The mirror: The challenge of social and economic Transformation

Admittedly it was a relief to get out of the intensity of the current US political bubble, with its non-stop tweets, reporting on tweets and tweets about the reporting. The trip was a good reminder that there is life outside that bubble, and other people have their own political, social and economic challenges – and tougher ones than ours.

But South Africa also turned into a mirror for me. The country faces tremendous challenges around race and the halting, decades-long struggle for social and economic transformation. Learning more about that struggle gave me a fresh perspective about social and economic challenges in the US.

The country is still struggling to move from an economy dominated by a white minority to one which provides much greater opportunity and empowerment for the black majority.  The original policy intent 20 years ago was to accomplish this with “broad based empowerment”, without disenfranchising (and driving away) white business and investment. Some believe progress has been too slow; they focused instead on “narrow based empowerment” which emphasizes transferring ownership from whites to blacks. Some in turn believe that narrow ownership transfer enriches few and empowers fewer. And so the search continues for an effective form of more radical transformation.

To an outsider, the challenge is that genuine transformation requires both growth and redistribution, rather than trading off either one for the other. Delivering both, of course, is difficult and requires consensus, collaboration and compromise, along with a good dose of innovation – and macro-economic luck (e.g. commodity prices going the right direction).

That challenge seemingly needs to be met, though. Any alternative to the “win-win” outcome of both growth and redistribution seems risky at best:

  • Growth without redistribution means the rich get richer, creating more inequality and anger.
  • Redistribution without growth is likely to stall an economy, incurring the costs of disruption without the benefits, and driving away needed investment.
  • Having neither growth nor distribution is unacceptable, creating a downward spiral of stagnation and frustration.

Genuine transformation, combining growth and redistribution, appears difficult but necessary.

Sitting in South Africa hearing these discussions I found myself sketching the two-by-two matrix above. And as I sketched, I got confused about whether I was describing South Africa or the US. Beneath the personalities and absurdities of last year’s US political campaign, there were genuine economic and social issues. Arguably, populist elements of one party pushed for growth without redistribution, while the populist wing of the other party fought for redistribution without growth.  Somewhere in the discussion, the challenge of building coalitions for the win-win outcomes seemed to get lost.

And so I found myself looking in the mirror, with South Africa’s challenges helping me take a fresh look at the challenges back in the US. Getting out of your bubble  can do that.

[Opinions in this blog are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in the post. To share this blog, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to nadlerstrategy.com.]

Driving sustainability: A glimpse of South Africa

It was my first time in Africa since leaving Ethiopia 50 years ago.  We’ve both changed.

A whirlwind week in an unfamiliar country – let alone an unfamiliar continent – doesn’t make you an expert.  At best, it leaves you with some vivid impressions.  Especially if you get out of our all-too-usual routine of airports, hotel meeting rooms, and fellow expats.

My first trip to South Africa was indeed well out of my routine. Thanks to my wonderful colleagues at ERM in South Africa, my first 24 hours in the country included elephants, zebras, giraffes, warthogs and other non-routine meetings. My last 24 hours included hiking atop Table Mountain, baboons staring down cars, the Cape of Good Hope, townships, seals playing in the surf, and brilliant ocean vistas. In between, I had the chance to meet with 30 clients from across South Africa.  They came from diverse sectors, from mining to medicine, chemicals to communications, resources to retail.  We met (admittedly) in hotel meeting rooms in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but also in mine offices and company canteens. I also had in-depth conversations with a dozen colleagues from ERM’s South African business unit, the base for a growing presence throughout Africa.

That left me with two vivid impressions.  Both are about sustainability, one more emotional and the other more intellectual.

The emotional impression is a pretty typical reaction to Africa, I’m told: overwhelming beauty, scale and complexity mixed with constant reminders of the power of nature.  I don’t have the words to do justice to this, so I’ve just bored family and friends with pictures.

The intellectual impression is of a sustainability laboratory: all the issues are in play here. There are no constants.  Social, economic and environmental factors are all in flux and interconnected. South Africa as a society and an economy, is like a big extended family sharing a house that’s too small and needs work. People are already living on the ground floor, some are working to expand the house and add rooms and comfort to the second floor, while others are still working to shore up the foundation.  Logically, you would work on the foundation first.  But there’s not time for that, the house is already too crowded and the expectations about the growth too high. In fact, the excitement and demand for those additions to the house provide the very energy and resources needed for shoring up the foundation. Neither task, additions or foundation, can wait for the other to go first.

The biggest question is, can this work? Can this country grow sustainably? Sustainable development isn’t an interesting question here, it’s an imperative. It is, in effect, the elephant in the room. That elephant isn’t exactly hidden; everyone knows it’s there, once you know where to look.

Elephant hiding

“That elephant isn’t exactly hidden” – Mabula Game Lodge, Limpopo, South Africa

Fortunately, I had a great teacher who showed me what to look for. For all the terrific insights from clients and colleagues, my best teacher was July, the ERM driver who took me from Johannesburg out to the bush.  July, it turns out, is studying environmental management. He is energetically turning potential burdens into opportunities.  He is reveling in the moment. And he taught me how to listen to South Africa.

  • His day job is as a driver, taking people to and from meetings about environment and sustainability.  A source of distraction and frustration to someone studying for a better career? No, a source of opportunity to get experience: he won approval to go into meetings and sit in the back taking notes rather than sitting outside in the car.
  • He grew up with parents from two different clans speaking different languages (Northern Sotho and Tsonga). With Afrikaans and English both used in school, he had to learn four languages by the time he was eight.  A source of confusion and burden? No, the source of a facility with languages which he’s now using to learn Portuguese so he’ll be prepared for the growth markets on South Africa’s borders.  And he’s making sure his children learn multiple languages.
  • Stuck spending a Saturday driving this American through drenching rain nearly flooding the streets of Bela Bela? He deftly turned it into a mutual coaching session. We spent hours in the car and over lunch in a fair trade of experience. He extracted lessons in consulting and client service from me. He gave me powerful lessons in South Africa’s true sustainability challenge: meeting economic, infrastructure and social needs amidst vulnerable environmental riches and growing expectations.

July didn’t just drive my travel-weary body that day, he drove my understanding.  Just like he’s driving his career. And it’s energy, insight and adaptability like his that helps give South Africa real promise for working through its sustainability challenges.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]