Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 18 March 2013

South Africa should beef up its strengths

Experts frequently try to cajole Africa into value added manufacturing, instead of just exporting our resources. But before we look into building cars or diamond polishing, perhaps we should look at our real strength: cattle-farming.

Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, has written a stinging piece in which he warns Africa against its love affair with China. He says Nigeria, with a large domestic market of more than 160 million people, “spends huge resources importing consumer goods from China that should be produced locally. Nigeria buys textiles, leather goods, tomato paste, starch, furniture, electronics building materials and plastic goods.  The Chinese on the other hand buy Nigeria’s crude oil and have set up big mining and infrastructure operations. But with few exceptions they have done so using equipment and labour imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities. China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was the essence of colonialism.”

The classic South African example often quoted by economists is that we mine our gold and diamonds and platinum, and then export the lot without adding value. The Italians and French and others then make precious jewellery which we buy back from them at a premium. Many attempts have been made to fix this, but somehow we have failed to create a viable world-class jewellery manufacturing industry. We beat ourselves up about examples like this constantly.

The answer is probably simpler than we think. It is that it is not in our blood.Why do the Italians excel at making gold chains, and designing exceptional motor cars? Why do the French bake world famous bread and live off a still vibrant fashion industry? Why do the Germans excel at technology and the Dutch hydrologists become experts in water management, and so on around the world? It is because they have been doing it for centuries and have passed down the culture to each new generation.  They have consistently built on their strengths and have allowed other countries to supply them with what they do not have.

There has never been a proper manufacturing culture in South Africa. We have tried a number of quick-fix solutions but they have not taken root. The motor car manufacturing we are now so proud of has been built on imported skills that have been transferred only partially. The crowning experience of our viticulture students is to go to Geisenheim in Germany or to France. In winemaking, as in many other sectors, the ultimate topping up of qualifications and experience has been to go to some other major country. To be fair there is a growing awareness of the benefits of local home-grown manufacturing and some of it shows potential. But are we building on our strengths and our best assets?

Deep in the heart of Africa is cattle raising. Herding cattle is how African boys learn the lessons of being responsible. Caring for livestock is the “family business” of tribes in much of Africa. Cattle are not only a major source of protein; cattle are entrenched in the cultures of Africa from slaughtering a cow for a wedding or a funeral, to using cows as payment for lobola. The Masai drink cow’s blood to make them strong and because they believe that it is good for you.

Cattle farming was for generations the passion of Afrikaner farmers, and still is a dream for many whose families worked farms before the big migrations into the cities.

But if it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche, why is Africa not the “cattle capital” of the world? Why do we not have a world-dominating beef export industry that provides beef in all its forms to countries everywhere on earth? We could be totally dominant in every sector of industry or business that relates to beef, using every bit of the animal, from the skins and the bones to the meat and the horns. We should be world-famous for our treatment of every disease found in cattle with “cattle-expert” veterinary specialists flying all over the world to dispense their skills.

The Danes were clever enough to brand “Danish bacon” and the New Zealanders have built a reputation for “New Zealand lamb”. The Gauchos of the Pampas in Argentina may be ahead of us with “Argentine beef”, but cattle were only imported to Argentina in the 16th century. African tribes were stealing each other’s cattle long before then. Africa, where cattle are in the spirit of the people, has a much bigger claim on cattle and could do a much bigger thing for “African beef”. Now that would be building on a strength.

In modern South Africa, as in many other parts of Africa, we are good at ditching what is intrinsically our own and adopting in a half-baked manner what is appealing from America or Europe or elsewhere. I think of the philosophy of ubuntu, which is quoted as a nice old-fashioned way of life with the unselfish and forgiving Madiba being the symbol of it. But why have we not built ubuntu into a thriving and dynamic philosophy for the current generations, and created business schools and leadership academies that can export this uniquely African thing adapted for the present time? It should by now have become the central tenet of an entire business philosophy covering marketing, financial management, human resources, distribution and the rest of it. Where is the Stephen Covey of ubuntu or the Rich Dad Poor Dad Robert Kiyosaki who has made a fortune out of a much thinner philosophical baseline? Bookshops are bursting with self-help books and motivational speakers make their lives out of dispensing good life-skills advice. But ubuntu is nowhere. Why are our business schools mainly Harvard or Insead “wannabes”? Why don’t we also have African ubuntu institutes of leadership? Ubuntu could become something that is the envy of the world.

Is the failure of Africa due to it adopting values and philosophies that are not appropriate to it? Is it because we don’t build on our strengths and our precious assets? Instead, we try to imitate what other nations already excel at and which we will at best be a “me-too” nation.

Sanusi in Nigeria does well to encourage his people to become more self-reliant, but in trying to beat the Chinese at their own game he is on a hiding to nothing. He would be better off helping Nigeria to manage its oil and other resources carefully and to look at a country like Kenya which has capitalised on the major African asset of good weather to become a very successful flower exporter. DM



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