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Creativity is one of SA’s critical watchwords, let’s cut right through the red tape


Dr Michael Kahn is an independent policy adviser and honorary research fellow in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

Recall that in 1600, the Church of Rome executed Giordano Bruno for heresy. Galileo Galilei survived his 1633 trial by recanting his faith in science. Institutions come and go; eternal vigilance is called for. It took the Vatican 359 years to agree with Galileo’s heliocentric theory.

This is the sixth in a series of columns on “What 10 words best describe our South Africa?” Today’s word is Creativity. Read the first five parts of the series here, here, here,  here and here.

It is creativity that makes us homo sapiens, that inventive and innovative tool-making hominid, a primate both kind and unkind. Czech-born economist Joseph Schumpeter gave us the idea of innovation as “creative destruction” that propels new industries and destroys others in growing the market economy. One might even term this ‘unnatural selection’.

Countless improvements to products, processes, organisational structure and communication are innovations that drive the animal spirit of business, the public sector and civil society. We enjoy innovation, hate it and embrace it. Innovation and creativity, these two walk together. “Innovate or die” might be a mantra for recitation in Grade R schools across the land.

Where did it all begin? Some would go back to the ancients, the Persians, Aztecs, Ashanti, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. They certainly innovated though their societies evolved but slowly; empires came and went. All contributed knowledge in medicine, waterworks, warfare, transport, communication, arts and mathematics, much of which we now take for granted.

But in Europe in the mid-17th century, Enlightenment emerged from previous errors and trials, building on centuries of learning by doing, as wind and water power expanded production by replacing animal and human power.

Recall that in 1600 the Church of Rome executed Giordano Bruno for heresy. Galileo Galilei survived his 1633 trial by recanting his faith in science.

Yet through his persistence and Gutenberg’s widely disseminated printing press (an innovation!) we gained empirical science, telescopes and a new view of the cosmos.

Remember the two Bacons — 13th-century Roger who built a bridge of knowledge from the Arab philosophers, and Francis who laid out the experimental method. Newton gave us the Law of Motion, and this was enough for humankind later to plot the trajectory for a moon landing and the long-range destruction of cities.

Economic historian Joel Mokyr explains that innovation was able to flourish since the institutional environment now enabled the sharing of new ideas. Creationists are still bothered by the heliocentric system, and Enlightenment remains at risk of becoming the Endarkenment.

Institutions come and go; eternal vigilance is called for. It took the Vatican 359 years to agree with Galileo’s heliocentric theory.

Innovation is boundless. The bicycle gave mobility to the new working and middle classes and increased the sharing of genes. And it was good. Grand apartheid was a social innovation and it was bad.

Facebook and X are soft innovations that are life-changing. Generative artificial intelligence is upon us and shapes our behaviour, scooping up our keystrokes and body language. Our computers do not suck up our genomes or pheromones, yet. Criminal innovation will be an op-ed for another time in Daily Maverick.

Algorithm for life

Following Financial Times writer Janan Ganesh, who finds inspiration for his weekly column by listening to those he meets in passing, I asked my sauna acquaintances what creativity means in South Africa.

One opined that creativity arises from our cultural diversity; another was of the mind that we are solution-oriented, not so much “’n boer maak ’n plan”, as facing up to adversity and finding a way through. Look at a situation, a project, a process that begs for a new approach, and ask yourself, “why this, and not that?”

This attitude is what Walter Isaacson, Elon Musk’s biographer, attributes to Musk, perhaps the greatest innovator since Thomas Edison. Both men changed the world; the former working from the laws of physics; the latter through trial and error.

Isaacson shares with us Musk’s “Algorithm” of change management that in condensed form goes like this. One — the only diktat is physical law; everything else is a recommendation. Two — question relentlessly, simplify, redesign, automate and push. Three — hire with care; you can train a person, but cannot change their deep attitudes. And you need steely resolve and a deep pocket. Fail, sulk, pick yourself up, and do better. The Algorithm mixes the technical and behavioural, and therein lies its value. We may love or loathe Musk, but must ask how might the Algorithm work for us.

Innovation scope

A good starting point is to measure our level of innovation activity. The Global Innovation Index ranks us at 59th of the 140 countries surveyed. Unimpressive.

Other measures tell a brighter story. StartupBlink assesses large city innovation ecosystems. In Africa, Lagos is first, followed by Cape Town, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Accra. This is odd.

Greater Cape Town hosts UCT and Stellenbosch University which are way ahead of Nigerian academe, yet when it comes to start-ups and the elusive unicorns, Nigeria leads. It seems academe is a necessary, but not a sufficient source of innovation fertiliser.

Another measure is the Global Cities Innovation Index of 200 cities including Johannesburg, Cape Town and Lagos, in that order. No Accra and no Nairobi. By this index, Johannesburg leads because of its creative industries, and is ahead of Bangalore, Tel Aviv and Canberra. Fix Johannesburg’s infrastructure and she will fly.

Apply the Algorithm? As Buffalo Springfield sang, “There’s something happening here, But what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Naspers, Bidvest, Sasol are world-class innovators, yet it was not always so. Sasol started out as a technological laggard, then, faced with the failure of its early US technology, her leadership drew on country skills in chemistry and metallurgy to create a new process for the conversion of coal to oil. If not, why not?

Naspers and Bidvest face permanent competition; innovate or die. Remember stove maker Defy? They defied competition through a joint venture with Swiss Francke but then burnt out and are now owned by Turkish Arcelik.

And then there were Teljoy and Ellies. Bloody ‘ell, even an aerial in every home couldn’t keep China at bay. And lest we forget, for a moment in time our Johanna Solar was a world leader in photovoltaic panel technology.

And oh yes, we are going to innovate in the green hydrogen space. Great idea, we have sunshine and water and loads of Chinese-made wind turbines and PV panels, and a deep water port, but our neighbour and ex-colony Namibia is already some two years ahead of us and running away. What are they getting right? The world will not take pity on us while we get our heads around things.

Goodness me, on the night of the crescent moon we found a secluded place to observe Aurora Australis. No joy, but what light through yonder cloud breaks? Musk’s low orbit Starlink satellites, three of them, in under 10 minutes. But we in Azansi can’t access the damn things. It’s all about institutional reasons and inclusion and opportunity and rent-seeking, not physics or rocket science.

Yet our creativity is everywhere — think Yoco for payments, Derivco for online gambling, Checkers Sixty60.

And there’s arts and music, the improvisation of Abdullah Ebrahim, William Kentridge, and bead artist Esther Mahlangu. Don’t forget other innovations like our Constitution, and SARS e-filing, and MyCiti busses, and being able to obtain a passport through your bank.

Given the institutional freedom to innovate, we can. Shaya red tape, shaya. DM


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  • Rob Fisher says:

    “Remember stove maker Defy? They defied competition through a joint venture with Swiss Francke but then burnt out and are now owned by Turkish Arcelik.”

    My great grandfather was one of the founders of DEFY. John Henry Skinner started “Falkirk Foundry” of the 3 legged pot fame. This was combined with “Durban Electric” to create the first electric stoves in South Africa, which had a cast iron body. Hence the DE FY. I still have one of these old stoves from the 1930s.
    Sadly the company was sold and now they sell mainly imported rubbish.

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    I can think of so many others. Kreepy Krauly, Pratley Putty, Manfred Mann – and that’s just getting started. This is a South African first date, this is a dinner party. The best article I have ever read on DM.

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