Opinionista Paddy Upton 13 September 2019

Cry, the beloved country

South Africa is a country of rich and poor, beauty and litter, generosity and greed, enlightenment and ignorance, Mandela and Zuma, education and illiteracy … and lots in between. I was born here, but my work allows me to live pretty much anywhere in the world I want to. I’m often asked where I’d choose. I finally made this tough decision and a recent experience suggests I have chosen well.

While on a flight from Cape Town travelling to speak at a headmasters’ conference at Queen’s College in Queenstown, I read an article by Discovery CEO Adrian Gore titled “Things are bad and getting worse for South Africa. Or are they?” (published for the World Economic Forum).

Gore pointed to research by Ipsos MORI that showed, of 28 countries surveyed, South Africans are the most uninformed pessimists when it comes to what their future holds. He pointed to murder rates being high, yet also 50% down from 1994; GDP growth at a paltry 0.8%, yet also 2.5 times the size it was in 1994; and widespread homelessness, yet formal housing up by 131% since 1996.

Gore went on to remind South Africans that they have a substantial economy and lots more to be optimistic about in their future.

Yet not all is good. No South African needs reminding that we are cursed with too many corrupt and incompetent public officials – leaders whose self-serving antics have cost the country an estimated R500-billion and an opportunity cost of approximately 2.5 million jobs over the past 10 years. It’s an insult to leadership to refer to some of these people as leaders.

The headmasters’ conference saw about 25 leaders from, often rival, public boys’ schools meeting to discuss their challenges and opportunities and to offer support to each other in a difficult educational and political climate. It seems being a headmaster might be lonelier than being a CEO.

There was talk of the importance their schools play in forming the future of the country. South Africa’s athletes, business and political leaders of tomorrow are currently being shaped as they pass through the hands of these elders, who serve tirelessly and dedicatedly to offer hope for their country’s future.

It was clear that few of these headmasters are in it for personal gain or selfish agendas. Their job has more challenges and more significance, yet less support and financial reward, than those of most of their business counterparts.

Before the conference started, I was asked to address 500 Queen’s College high school pupils at a 7.30am assembly. I shared a few sporting anecdotes to suggest that results on the sports field or in the boardroom alone are incomplete measures of success, and went on to highlight the value of being good people and following ethical and principled processes in the pursuit of excellence – avoiding short-term win-at-all-costs practices such the metaphorical sandpapering of cricket balls.

I said it was not necessarily the most talented pupils in that school hall who would one day reach the top levels of sport and business, but rather those at the top of the game when it came to learning and adopting practices of excellence.

Then something happened that I did not expect.

As staff members left the hall, the head boy asked me to wait behind as the boys would like to thank me. I stood on the stage beside the headmaster, Mr van der Ryst, as a solo baritone voice rose from somewhere in the middle of the hall. This was followed by a chorus of 500-plus mainly black African voices. With each reprise of baritone then chorus, the volume increased. A single whistle joined the chorus, then there were five whistles, then 20, then 50. Orderly rows of schoolboys dissolved as they moved to surround the solo baritone and 500 bodies melted into rhythm and dance.

I got goose-flesh, pride of Africa swelled in my chest and I don’t know how I stemmed the emotion that threatened to erupt like a burst fire-hydrant.

The energy and song of young African men reached a frenzied crescendo and then quietened to dead silence. I walked off a school stage, entranced, with my lower lip quivering. Moments later, when I found a quiet place to process the experience, the hydrant burst.

Composure regained, I reflected on a decision I’d taken on where to live. I’d decided on the country where I believed I would have the best quality and experience of life. What I had just witnessed was confirmation that I’d made the right choice – South Africa.

Those who live here, or have visited, know the magnificent soul, energy and natural beauty of South Africa. She is also a country cursed with social ills and questionable leadership, and its consequences, that have smudged and even scarred her beauty. The evidence of those amazing headmasters, and of tomorrow’s leaders in their care, is that the smudges can be cleared and the scarring healed. Those youngsters are schooled to lead with integrity and to serve the greater good.

These few good men will be smart enough to fill seats at the leadership table – along with more than a few of good women already doing remarkable things for the environment, society and our country. (Female leaders are less likely to exhibit the toxic masculine traits that see much of South Africa – and the world – in the state it’s in. Sorry fellow men, but it’s true.)

I live in South Africa. And I love it. DM

Paddy Upton is a leadership coach, professor of practice, speaker and author of “The Barefoot CoachLife-changing lessons from coaching the world’s best cricketers”.


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