First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Graft has infiltrated the public and private sectors to the extent that I wonder if we will ever be free of its insidious and destructive tentacles. South Africans have faced existential crises before and have always pulled back, but right now the cliff edge is too close for comfort. It was in this context that I had the pleasure of listening to two inspirational business leaders – Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, CEO of Naspers in SA, and Stephen Saad, CEO of Aspen – who were interviewed by Stanlib Chief Economist Kevin Lings at the Investment Forum this week.
Neither requires any introduction. Both stepped forward at the outset of the pandemic to offer funding and resources to government as it faced a pandemic that no one understood. They did not do so because they run, respectively, the biggest technology and pharmaceutical company in SA, but because leading from the front and with purpose is what they do, and always have done.
In May 2018, Aspen opened its R1-billion sterile facility in Gqeberha. At the time it was simply part of the company’s commitment to expand its manufacturing capacity and strengthen SA’s industrialisation programme. But as Saad said this week: “Thank goodness we did.” Aspen has done more in a few months to bust the myth that Africa does not have the capacity or capabilities to produce vaccines to first-world standards than any talk shop has in decades.
It has risen to be one of the top performers in Johnson & Johnson’s global manufacturing network and is now leading the “one African, one vaccine” charge. “We have committed to this,” says Saad. “We have the capacity to produce 300 million doses of the vaccine, and we’d like to take that up four or five times. It cannot go on like this; we have to look after ourselves. We cannot be behoven to anyone for public health.”
He said Africa needs support in technology transfer. And in this regard, Aspen’s leadership has been recognised by Patrick Soon-Shiong, a SA-American transplant surgeon, billionaire businessman, bioscientist and media proprietor. He invented the drug Abraxane, known for its efficacy against lung, breast, and pancreatic cancer.
Saad said Soon-Shiong (who was born in Gqeberha), is interested in investing R3-billion to bring his vaccine manufacturing operation to SA. “These are big investments, but investments in science and technology are good investments and we are pushing this very hard.” Listening intently, Mahanyele-Dabengwa echoed the sentiments of all South Africans when she said: “We are rooting for you, Stephen.”
As the local CEO of a R1-trillion multinational, it would be unwise to dismiss her as a mere figurehead. There was a reason that Fortune included her in its list of Most Powerful Women International in 2020, echoing the sentiments of The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, previously. She is charged with growing Naspers’s multi-billion rand business in SA, and oversees Naspers Foundry, the R1.4-billion fund that invests in smart and impactful tech investments locally, and with ensuring the industry is equipped with the skills it requires.
“These are the businesses of tomorrow, the businesses that will create employment and drive growth,” she says of the small businesses that the Foundry is investing in.
By virtue of her position and abilities she is in a powerful position to influence and lobby for change. “For our part, we need to ensure that these businesses have the infrastructure and the skills they need to roll out successfully. We need government and everyone to put their best foot forward. We are engaging with many different parts of government on these and other issues.”
She said investment in local businesses was not being held back by no capital or appetite but by excessive regulation, among other things. “When it comes to regulation we must not seek to emulate what is happening in the US and elsewhere. We don’t want regulations that make small business jump through hoops. We need to look at the regulator environment to ensure it’s conducive to investment.” Amen sister.
There has been a lot written over the last few years about purpose-driven leaders, who are not driven by profit, but by finding meaning in what they do. This does not mean that profit is not important or an outcome of their endeavours. To some extent this thinking is becoming mainstream. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, a group of leading US companies that includes Apple, General Motors, BlackRock and Amazon, issued a statement arguing that profits should no longer be the key focus of corporate activity.
But, with the coronavirus bringing about fundamental changes in how we live and work and in many people’s attitudes, there is increasing pressure to turn the talk into action. I thought about all of this as I listened to Phuti and Stephen this week.
To me these two leaders exemplify what it means to have a strong sense of individual purpose. This means – in the case of Aspen – investing when others are fearful; and with Naspers (more specifically Phuti), having the courage to speak truth to power.
I was inspired, and encouraged. And that is what leadership is about. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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