REVIEW: Sue Townsend
South Africa is blessed with the number of people who care deeply about their country and its fate, particularly since 1994. The Gordon Institute of Business Science (under the auspices of the University of Pretoria) has commissioned this collection of conversations between Jennifer Lindsey-Renton and a variety of successful South Africans. The aim is to inspire others to emulate these successful people and in so doing achieve their own potential while uplifting the nation as a whole. As Professor Nick Benedell (the founder of GIBS) says in his introduction: ‘[T]he key differentiator of successful countries in transition comes down to a potent mix of institutions and leadership.’
This collection focuses on the leadership aspect, and, in particular, interrogates the leadership traits of the various people interviewed. Binedell goes on to say the ‘…all leaders essentially learn to lead in two different and equally important ways. The first is the have to find their own rhythm and come to terms with their own values; they have to understand their own style and the contribution they can make. At the same time, that style and approach have to find fertile ground at the right place and at the right time.’ As I read, I was reminded of Michael Young’s satirical take on modern society (written in 1958!) which suggested that you need intelligence rating, qualification, experience, application, and a certain calibre to achieve status. In a word, one must show merit to advance in the new society of tomorrow. His notion is now often taken to be in praise of ‘meritocracy’ when, in fact, he was deploring meritocracy – favouring as it did the people who are luckiest in their genes and health; family support; education and career opportunities so that these people reap the largest reward.
A common thread running through these stories shows that this is seldom the case. Carol Boyes explains that being ‘…in the right place at the right time, and … how important of word-of-mouth is for any business to grow’. Robbie Brozin (he of Nando’s fame) tells young entrepreneurs that they think they are working for themselves but they are always going to have partners like the bank, an investor, your wife or your clients. However, if they have a product, they can be master of their products destiny. Bobby Godsell’s father was a boilermaker and his was a working class upbringing but he was an intelligent, curious child and encouraged by his parents to have an open, tolerant outlook on life, with values that he could subscribe to. Wendy Luhabe’s family were forcibly removed to Daveyton when she was eight; her parents encouraged her to be the best she could be. Other influences were her schooling at Healdtown in the Eastern Cape and leaving South Africa in the 1970s to study at the University of Lesotho. Then there is Herman (named Highman because his grandfather decided he was going to be special!) Mashaba – the boy with holes in his shoes. Brought up by his extended family in the rural areas after the death of his father, he comments that ‘I was fortunate to have teachers who liked me and made time for me.’ This is the man who eventually used his intelligence and street smarts to found and develop the Black Like Me brand and built the Phatsima Group and Lephatsi Investments ‘…a leading non-racial entrepreneurial and socially responsible company … at the forefront of the economic empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups in South Africa.’
Another thread that runs through all the conversations is the determination of these remarkable South Africans to empower and uplift others. Herman Mashaba has vowed to spend the rest of his life fighting discrimination; Yogavelli Nabiar was brought up to value being liberal, generous and open-minded. These values have stood her in good stead as the creator of the Enterprise and Development Academy at GIBS where she has focused on her mission to assist those from disadvantaged (why do we still write ‘previously disadvantaged?) communities to improve their lives and those around them through entrepreneurship.
Most of those profiled have also led fairly active political lives, but not all. Sport stars like Francois Pienaar have set up charitable trusts (his is Make a Difference – MAD) which raise funds for bursaries and academic mentorship for academically gifted young South Africans. All of those who remember that World Cup final in 1995 will be amused to learn that he would simply like ‘6’ to be on his tombstone.
Now we come to the ‘unfortunately’ part of this review. Having given a taste of the conversations recorded here it must be noted that each conversation follows the same formula (clearly the identical questions were asked). The writing is pedestrian and, at no point, is there any analysis nor are any conclusions reached. I expected more from an institute such as GIBS.