It’s about time we started writing our own success story

Business

It’s about time we started writing our own success story

Foreign capital and foreign expertise will only come at the right price once we’ve got our own house in order

Mark Barnes


There are lots of For Sale signs in the suburbs. That’s not a good thing. Price is determined where supply meets demand. Expect lower prices. Demand is determined by confidence, in the present, and when it comes to capital commitment, in the future. Enduring confidence is the informed end game, sustainability its precursor. 
Just above survival in the hierarchy of winning nations is the question of sustainability. You can hardly get through the first day in any strategy conference without the question of sustainability coming into focus, as it should.
Elements of sustainability include understanding and planning for competitors, resilient business models, the right people, an enabling cost of capital, the proper support, an enabling regulatory environment, the rule of law … lots of stuff.
We still need to cross the divide between building capacity and entrenching dependency. Getting there is up to us, not others. We may be looking in the wrong places. The answer is here, not there.
Foreign capital and foreign expertise will only come at the right price once we’ve got our own house in order, and then it’ll come in abundance. We must get over our local inferiority complex. To achieve escape velocity, we need to trust each other across the lines that once divided us. Information must be pooled, not segregated. Ask each other what’s true and what’s trusted.
That we need experts in charge (sourced internally and externally) is not in dispute. That they need to transfer expertise to us is not negotiable, their mandates need to demand it. But do it right.  Take as much time as you need to find the right person for the job, but here that’s not all. The purpose must be clear transfer of knowledge.  Do the job now but make sure some of us can do it when you leave – and plan to hand over the reins within three to five years. Stay on the board if you like, to keep a watching brief over your proteges, provide guidance, but let them do the work, make the judgment calls, learn from the mistakes. Just because you own the hospital doesn’t mean you’re qualified to give orders in the operating theatre.
Capital investment begins at home. Beware of foreign banks bearing gifts. There’s a difference between putting capital (and reinvested profits) at risk to grow our economy compared with making trading profits off the natural volatility that emerging markets offer, then taking profits home.
We require different business models, different time frames and different technologies to roll out broad-based funding and investment at prices that enable, instead of destroy. We don’t need to extract value now, we need to create value – the harvest will come later.
We must do it ourselves first if we expect others to follow. Prepare the soil, plant the seeds, sell part of the harvest, not a piece of the land.The state is the biggest player in the economy, like it or not. The solution does not lie in handing everything over to the  private sector or to foreign players. Just making more money among the same players doesn’t solve inequality and ensure peace.Partnerships will be part of the solution, but we must create assets, not entrench dependencies. No more sale and leasebacks. No more other people’s systems and infrastructure. We know what we need locally. The solution must be built up from first principles – not imported, not outsourced.The issue is this. We’re not only about maximising return on shareholders’ funds. We’re about closing gaps, growing the middle ground, finding our own definition of economic sustainability. Even before that, let’s start with just the prospect of economic dignity.
Dare I say that I’ve worked on both sides. It is simply not true that all the skills and right attitudes are going to be found in the private sector. The knowledge mix required for our formula is uniquely South African, and you must know what that entails, the local rules, to be a valuable contributor. Let’s do it ourselves. Let’s stop admiring what other people’s definition of success might look like. It’s about time we started writing our own story.
We all belong here. Where else would you want to go anyway? Seriously? No, there isn’t another place. We’re not the alternative, we’re the real deal. We have rights here.
• Mark Barnes is CEO of Post Office.

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