Defend Truth


So, do we want to be a global player or not?

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

While South Africa delights in the status of being recognised as a global player, we refuse to play by the rules of the global game. We enjoy the advantages, but deprive ourselves of the investment and skills of being more open and welcoming to outsiders.

In a major study undertaken two years ago, more than 200 international corporate chief executives were asked what their key issues were. “Globalisation” was found to be a top concern. The results, published again in the book The New Secrets of CEOs, show there is an increasing awareness of the impact of the global economy on local economies. CEOs must gird themselves to participate fully as global players or end up in the back streets of the world economy.

One would think, as South Africans, we fully agree with this. We are excited and proud when South Africa sits at the BRICS table alongside the mighty Brazil, Russia, India and China; perhaps a little awkwardly, like a shabby relative who must be invited to a big family event. But in a real sense we are finding our feet as global players. We blush with pleasure when someone like the US Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, visiting the Ford Motor plant in Port Elizabeth, congratulated the local company for securing the international engine contract and described South Africa as a “true global player”.

Forget about the medals at the Olympics and the cricket and the rugby. When any South African achievement is registered on the world stage we glow. Remember how we felt about the World Cup and the announcement of the €1.5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope—even if it is to be shared with Australia—and everything else from the technology of Sasol to the Pratley Putty invented in Krugersdorp that went to the moon. 

We even have several reminders of how smart we are from our “Proudly South African” initiatives to the websites that have to bring to our attention: “South Africa, The Good News” It’s like some awkward middle child who has to be reminded constantly of his achievements to keep up his self esteem.

On the one hand, we really like the idea of the global player identity which has, after all, been coming for some time now. We travel, we read The World is Flat, we urge everyone to get good international experience and these days we all want to tap into our African roots with businesses into Africa. It’s all very well.

But on the other hand we behave like a jealous spouse, holding as much as possible to ourselves. While we welcome international investment, we put up barriers in case there may be job losses and we make it increasingly difficult for people coming from outside to get work-permits. The xenophobia is always just below the surface. Jobs have to be for our own people and no one else. We deprive universities and research institutions of the benefits of a vigorous international exchange of top scientific and technical leaders because our own people have to get first pick. Even our fellow Africans from countries like Zimbabwe and Nigeria get looked at askance. We want to participate in the world economy and have the benefits that would bring, but we don’t want to pay any price for the privilege.

The New Secrets of CEOs research found that in 1819, the economies of China and India were responsible for 49% of the world’s GDP due to silk, spice and porcelain trading. By 1973 this figure had dropped to 8%. They restricted trade, became insular and overly protective. Now, in a de-regulated world, there is every indication that they are heading back to dominance and should reach around 49% again by 2025.

If we are to engage with these countries and others that want to invest in Africa, we will have to learn how to let go of ourselves and participate fully as global players, without all the restrictions we now have in place. We should invite qualified scientists and experts from every discipline to come and live here as our welcome guests. They will train our people and they will create jobs while doing that. We must make great concessions to make it attractive for them and let’s get rid of this possessiveness. Well-qualified teachers, engineers, medical experts, technicians and scientists of all persuasions are badly needed and will not be a threat to local people. They will pass on their skills and enrich the country. We should not work so hard to keep them out, just to have it all for ourselves.

We are so resistant to outside influences that even when appointing leaders to key positions, where broad-mindedness and big-picture thinking skills are essential, we exclude anyone who thinks differently. Just look at how all those with COPE connections have been side-lined. 

In the same way that we should be actively working to bring international investment to the country, so we should also be actively recruiting graduate professionals to make a life here.

If we acknowledge that poverty and the widening wage gap are serious issues for this country, simply distributing government favours and re-cycling local assets into the electorate is not going to solve the problem. We have to play the global game properly and open ourselves up. DM


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