OPINION | Discovery Group CEO Adrian Gore’s views on Mzansi – We need action, not despair

Right now, times are tough for every South African. Every person I speak to is concerned and despairing; there is a deep sense of futility. The power crisis, combined with the physical decay and widespread corruption, has eroded hope and replaced it with despondence, and one thing seems to follow another.

Against this backdrop, I’m often asked questions along the following lines:

As an optimist, what do you think now? Have your views changed?

The answer is no – let me explain why. 

I want to be clear upfront that my position has never been about blind optimism, but rather about potential. I believe strongly that our country has unique capability and promise, not to mention people who are warm, resourceful, and adaptable, and share incredible goodwill and humour. My views are not based on opinion or emotion, but on data. 

There is a unique resilience to South Africa: despite the estimated cost of load shedding, a 2% to 3% loss in economic growth, our economy performed well in 2022. The Economist recently published a list of 34 mostly rich OECD economies, ranking their economic performance over the year based on five key variables (GDP growth, consumer prices, inflation breadth, net government debt changes, and stock market performance). Had South Africa been included in this analysis, it would have ranked 15th (or 16th, had the methodology included the muted performance of the last quarter of 2022). While the economy is under pressure now, imagine how it could grow if we solve our energy crisis and other challenges and work collectively to realise our economy’s potential.

Recognising potential is critical. We know from behavioural science that we are more compelled to act if we believe we have something to lose. If we lose sight of our country’s sophistication, scale, and beauty, we lose sight of the fact that there is something precious worth fighting for. This creates a negative feedback cycle that is causal and destructive: if we see our country as a lost cause, why dream, build or invest? On the other hand, if we see what we stand to lose, we evoke the activism and innovation needed to drive progress and growth and overcome decline. 

Consider that SA comprises 75% of the pension fund assets in Africa (as per the latest available data); has a domestic airline route, Cape Town to Johannesburg, that is within the 20 busiest in the world (2021); and has globally recognised universities that lead the way on many frontiers of global innovation, as per the continent’s scientific response to Covid-19. The fact is, the only way to alleviate the tragic levels of poverty and unemployment is to realise our potential.  

But to realise potential, you need optimism. Not blind optimism – the naive faith that everything is good or can get better on the current trajectory – but real, durable optimism. To quote Hannah Ritchie in her article An End to Doomerism:

Optimism is seeing problems as challenges that are solvable; it’s having the confidence that there are things we can do to make a difference.

Pessimism seems smart, but it isn’t. There is an “optimism stigma”, especially in South Africa. I think I know why. People believe that if they are pessimistic, they are prudent and thinking critically, and will somehow call out decline and failure. If optimistic, they believe they will somehow tolerate the unacceptable. This is not the case. Seeing potential makes you more enraged by failure. You find the Eskom situation more unacceptable, not less – how can this happen in a country as sophisticated as ours? Blind pessimism, and not optimism, is detrimental to progress: its passive commentary breaks down sentiment and capacity to act, as opposed to building it, and does so more quickly. Actions and solutions stall. It is the optimist who declares: “Not on my watch!” – and liberates potential through action.  

So, what can we do to realise potential and address failings? I make my comments here from the perspective of business. Strategy follows an understanding of context, and the context, in my view, is a state with many constructive policies, but one that is currently moving way too slowly and ineffectively to achieve these policy objectives, together with a considerable breakdown in the capability of the public sector. 

When capability breaks down, incompetence and corruption creep in. In this light, we must not underestimate the capability and agility of the private sector, which has adapted and grown to fill gaps – just look at how quickly a renewable-energy sector is forming to counter Eskom’s incapacity. 

In addition, research shows that business is one of the most trusted social partners. As per the latest Edelman Trust Barometer (2022), business is perceived as being able to both lead in responding to societal problems and to get results. If you accept this, then business must constructively engage and assist to realise the country’s potential by working with the government and other social partners. 

There is a strong precedent for this. The Covid-19 vaccination programme was initially late in its implementation, with doomsday predictions that South Africa would not successfully execute on the vaccine rollout, especially given that the Pfizer vaccine required a complex cold-storage chain of delivery. However, with the exceptional work done by both the public and private sector, the country developed the capacity to vaccinate at scale and in line with global best practice. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccine rollout, the problem was unequivocal and present, with limited alternatives – enabling focus and intensity. Now, with the country deep in an energy crisis amid other difficulties, we need the same urgency and focus across a broader range of issues.  

Business has identified three clear priority areas and, within them, a limited set of initiatives. If implemented, these will turn the flywheel in the next 12 months, creating powerful momentum for change. The priority areas include:

  • Energy: Stabilising energy supply by significantly accelerating the role of the private sector in supporting the implementation of the President’s Energy Action Plan, including improving the performance and availability of key power stations, expanding and strengthening generation and grid infrastructure, and unlocking municipal wheeling and trading of electricity.
  • Railways, ports and roads: Improving logistics infrastructure by fast-tracking agreement on the private sector participation framework for the operation and maintenance of our railways, ports and roads.
  • Crime and corruption: Supporting our key law enforcement agencies by providing resources and expertise, on an arms-length basis, to improve investigative and prosecutorial capabilities. 

I know that business is ready: we have the skills and resources and the determination to assist the state. We need to work together with government urgently to get this done, and we can. The effect will be a point of inflection for our country in both substance and narrative, changing our collective futures. This progress is what is needed to create jobs and to generate the tax revenues needed for a comprehensive social security net for the poor.

Individual citizens can also engage and assist, both attitudinally and practically. On the first, if we are to address poverty and job creation, we can’t allow the pessimists to corrupt our outlook on the country’s potential or convince us that we are already in or are heading towards becoming an irreversibly failed state. On the second, the “broken windows” theory in criminology states that visible signs of decay and civil disorder create an environment that allows further destructive behaviour to flourish.

We need to take a stand for excellence and against corruption and decline – keeping public spaces, streets, and pavements well maintained and clean, and always resisting bribes and kickbacks. This not only elevates the collective mood but also provides us with a sense of individual agency over our future – the very thing that has seemingly been taken from us.  

In conclusion, I have a deep conviction in the potential of our country and it is clear to me that this is not a time for pessimism, despair and inaction. On the contrary, we are in desperate need of optimism, hope and action. Now.  

– Adrian Gore is CEO of the Discovery Group and BUSA vice president.

This article 1st appeared in News24

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