Defend Truth


Entrepreneurs of South Africa: It’s time to author an alternative story


Fred Roed is the founder of Heavy Chef, a learning platform for entrepreneurs. The name ‘Heavy Chef’ comes from the saying never trust a skinny chef.

How do we find meaning amid senseless violence, rampant theft and mixed political messages? How can we move towards peace? A response to the anxiety felt by South Africa’s business owners.

There is a story unfolding in our country.

Right now, the chapter we’re in is a tragic one.

As I reflect upon the past week, I’m asking myself — what does my part in this story look like?

What does yours look like?

How do we navigate this story when everyone seems to be acting so crazy?

This story was brought into stark relief yesterday when my team received a grainy picture of the remains of an office building in KZN. It belonged to one of our beloved community members and it was burnt to the ground.

The owner of the business is a champion of economic development and someone deeply passionate about empowering entrepreneurs — and yet, a crucial component of her output has been reduced to ashes.

During the course of yesterday, I also received word from two friends who lost loved ones to Covid-19 within the past 48 hours.

Friends and colleagues of mine know that I often sign off my writing with the word, “Peace”. There are two reasons for this. The first reason: my name, Fred, actually means peace in Danish. Both my parents are from Denmark, but I was born in Johannesburg after they settled here. That leads me to the second reason, which is that I was offered a chance to study and work in Denmark back in the 1990s. While completing a post-grad in advertising, I watched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Danish television and decided that I’d prefer to return to South Africa to participate in some way in this country’s restoration post-1994.

Peace is more than just a word for me. It’s a concept that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out.

Never before has this concept been more important for us all to figure out — and move towards.

Over the past few days, we have witnessed unprecedented scenes of violence, destruction and chaos in South Africa. The lack of peace is more pronounced now than ever. Consider the following as a backdrop:

  • South Africa has plummeted to 75% youth unemployment.
  • We’re approaching 50% total unemployment.
  • We’re in the third wave of a crippling pandemic, which will only make the aforementioned factors worse.
  • People have been growing increasingly desperate and hungry as a result.
  • It’s cold. This winter is really really cold, in South Africa.
  • Hunger and cold do not make a good combination.

The situation we’re in is not a result of a “wasted decade”. It’s a result of centuries of engineered factional division, oppression and subjugation. It’s a result of multiple environmental factors.

In a word, South Africa is complicated. Possibly more complicated than any other nation. There’s no getting around the hurdles that we have to traverse to regain some semblance of peace.

So, what can you do today?

What can I do?

Since we started selling our wares (midway in 2017), my company has grown to more than 45,000 community members. Most are either entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs. A significant segment of the readers of this venerable media channel run their own businesses. Ostensibly, you are in contact with other entrepreneurs.

The South African SME community presents an opportunity. You may be feeling alone and desperate today, but you’re part of a crucial segment of society.

Together, we have agency. Together, we have influence.

We simply must use this agency and influence to lead the way towards peace.

Okay, so what does that really mean?

Well, many of us have teams, suppliers and contractors working for us. This presents us with a responsibility and an opportunity to affect change.

Here are some ideas, gathered from the leadership team here at my own small business:

Stop — Stop reaching for the phone every 10 seconds. Stop scrolling endlessly through Twitter. Stop notifications from that hysterical WhatsApp group for a while. Things are serious, but it’s imperative that you gather yourself into a state of calm. Your people need you to be a voice of reason, not someone who sends baseless videos via instant messaging.

Zoom out — Many of us are feeling anxious and reactive right now. Some of us feel as if we’re in existential danger, worrying about families and livelihoods. The threats are often real, but it’s crucial to understand what’s really going on. Instead of reacting viscerally to every single terrifying social media post, do some research. Follow journos that you trust and media outlets that try to present truth, not clickbait. Let’s all spend a few minutes unpacking both sides of the equation before making binary statements, hateful accusations and gross generalisations.

Plan — Based on the information that you’ve gathered, formulate, in your own mind, what it is that you want to do in the short, medium and long term. Depending on your situation, you may want to consider how you can help those in need, now. This positioning is something that can go a long way to promoting trust in the medium to long term. In my experience, I’ve seen that simple, easy-to-communicate steps work best. I never make plans for more than three overarching stages that allow my team to recite without having to consult their laptops.

Communicate — Your team needs you to articulate what’s going on. However, before that, they need to feel heard. In times of high anxiety, it’s worthwhile having regular standing meetings. These short meetings allow you as a leader to keep tabs on the temperature of your people, but also create a rhythm ’n flow that’s soothing for everyone. At my business, we hold virtual get-togethers at 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I begin each session with a quick check-in on how everyone is feeling. Once we’ve given the chance for people to express themselves, the discussion can move to operations and accountability.

Act — I love the saying, “The whole world steps aside for the person who strides in a singular direction.” Be that person. Be bold. Be confident. Be clear. Each member of your team needs to understand their role in your plan and how they are contributing to its success. Your standing meetings then should provide updates on how it’s going, and keep the team members accountable for their roles. Once you’ve set the plan in motion, then do it 100%. Back yourself and your team. They will need to see your confidence in yourself and in them. State your objectives clearly every day, measure how close you are to attaining them — and let people know.

As for us at our own little startup? Over the next few weeks, the Heavy Chef team will aim to “eat our own food”, so to speak. We will try to implement these same points in our own response to the drama that is unfolding around us.

Hopefully, we can inspire our community members to do the same.

Hopefully, this piece can inspire you to inspire your own community.

Life is a giant story, replete with tragedy and adventure, trials and redemption. Right now, this story includes violence, corruption, vitriol, poverty, hunger, desperation, shitty weather and a deadly pandemic.

As a leader, it’s imperative that you write your own part, rather than let others write it for you.

In doing so, you will play a part in writing this country’s story.

We must work through the complexity and bring it forward to the next chapter — a chapter that contains hope, momentum and (most of all) — Peace. DM


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