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Opinionista

South Africa — this is home

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By Mike Abel
29 Aug 2019 0

Mike Abel is regarded as one of South Africa's leading marketing and advertising practitioners. He is the Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and the M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in Africa. He is the former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader in South Africa by both the Financial Mail and Finweek : and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. Married to Sara and with 3 young sons, Mike is a regular speaker, writer and is passionate about politics and contemporary African art. His company is proudly also the home of the phenomenon called The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless. It has gone on to become a global movement providing a free shopping experience for hundreds of thousands of homeless people around the world.

Let’s get behind hopefully creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of incredible renewal for this magnificent country we call home.

Being part of a meaningful and vibrant solution for South Africa can truly make life much richer, happier and far more fulfilling:

There seems to be a particular conversation going on more often than not right now about weighing up the advantages and emotional, if not financial, costs of living in South Africa — versus following others to notionally fairer pastures across the seas.

Having spent a short part of my life living and working in another country, and hearing many of these conversations of late, I want to offer a perspective.

When I went to run the M&C SAATCHI Group as CEO for their Australia operations, it was at the same time that Jacob Zuma had unceremoniously ousted Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane, with his ANCYL henchman, Julius Malema.

Being a dad to three young boys, and having grave concerns about Zuma (all of which played out — and more) the offer of running the best and biggest ad agency in Australia and based in magnificent Sydney, held huge appeal.

It was also an exciting new opportunity for change, as although I was extremely happy co-leading the agency group I was at in South Africa, I had been at Ogilvy from the ages of 25 to 41 and I felt I needed a totally new challenge.

And so, as I read the daily papers and watched the news with the prospect of leaving, all the news I read validated this decision, as that was the lens through which I was viewing the country.

My obsession was solely with what Zuma and Malema would likely do to the country and not on what incredible opportunities lay wide open and in front of me, in a place I deeply love — and my family have called home since the late 1800s. Let’s not forget it was the evil of anti-Semitism and prejudice that had forced all my great-grandparents and a grandmother to move to South Africa from Russia, Lithuania and Poland.

So, looking through a lens to validate our decision to move to Sydney to run this incredible company, the daily news corroborating this view was overwhelming. Bad news sells — newspapers scarcely report the good stuff…

Sara and I weren’t looking through possibly a far more important lens. A small part of the head was overruling the entire heart. As parents to young boys, our entire obsession was their personal safety, as they’d been exposed to a very scary house robbery while staying with their grandparents in Nelson Mandela Bay.

So, the prospect of Zuma (corruption), Malema (extreme racist rhetoric) and crime (the robbery) was our myopic lens.

In the job market I have always said to people “never leave — only go to”. By that I mean you should make a career change if there is something that excites you more and is an opportunity for real change and challenge, as opposed to simply leaving a company you know because you think the grass may be greener on the other side.

Madiba said it far better: “May your choices reflect your hopes and not your fears.”

Our decision to leave at the time, and taking nothing away from the incredible company I was privileged to lead in Australia, not taking anything away from Sydney, which is a magnificent city, was mostly fear-based. It did not entirely reflect my hopes.

I hadn’t internalised how important South Africa is to me: the opportunity to continue to make a profound difference to people lives, which has always inspired me. To contribute to job creation and economic growth. To solve exciting problems through concepts and ideas. I hadn’t internalised the importance of the smells, the sounds and the timbre of home. I realised this most profoundly when my wife and I went to watch Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Sydney, and sad tears were pouring down our cheeks throughout the happy show.

I hadn’t internalised exactly what leaving grandparents, siblings, cousins and dearest friends actually meant. Shabbat suppers without them, planning late night or early Skype calls to cope with time zones, wanting to dive through that cold monitor and warmly hug them tight.

So when I was asked to set up the M&C SAATCHI ABEL Company in South Africa (but to start it remotely from Australia) we leapt at the opportunity to come home. I reached out to a number of my closest friends and most trusted colleagues, living in Australia, the UK and Kenya to also come home and start the company with me, which they did.

We started the agency in 2010, just 18 months into the Zuma “presidency”. And it has been, and is, the happiest and greatest thing we have ever done — despite the incredible economic headwinds we have faced since inception.

Why? Well first, this is home. We know, understand and feel it, intuitively and innately. We have had the opportunity to create and shape our own company and now, companies, employing a few hundred people. We have the opportunity to work with some of the best brands in the world and to do truly meaningful work. We have had the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to society through our numerous M&C SAATCHI ABEL Initiatives for Good, like The Street Store.

We are home. Among our own. A rich, vibrant and diverse people with warmth and soul. The smells, sights and sounds are those we know and love. I have Shabbat with my family, my sons got to spend the last four years of my wonderful mom’s life knowing her better — and we are back with many of our lifelong friends.

Now Zuma isn’t the president anymore. Cyril Ramaphosa is. The man that our great Madiba saw as his worthy successor. Sure, he has significant challenges on his hands, and still needs the space to lead as he’d wish, but when I hear some of his ideas for the country, when I read the draft plan just proposed by Tito Mboweni and the positive perspectives of exceptional entrepreneurs like Adrian Gore, I remain filled with hope. I believe South Africa will, as Nando’s said in an ad we helped create in 2018, “fix our shit”.

It all depends on the lens you choose to look through. If it’s one of being on home ground, around family, enormous opportunity and helping to make a significant difference, there is no better or more exciting place to be. If the lens you are looking through is the myriad real problems that confront us, you may we’ll be tempted to leave.

This is not remotely a judgment on anyone leaving or who has left. And many have settled overseas very happily. Many have come back. Life is fluid.

Having done both, my advice is to be led by the heart and not the head — to hopefully stay, contribute your immense skills and live a purposeful life. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “the heart knows reason, reason knows nothing of”.

Let’s get behind hopefully creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of incredible renewal for this magnificent country we call home. DM

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