Walking the talk

2011-10-22 09:24

The spring sun piercing his north-facing but surprisingly small Rosebank, Johannesburg, office reflects a man at peace with himself and the world.

He talks Karl Marx, and dabbles in Jesus Christ and Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian political economist famous for his book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.

A record company executive in a past life, the head of the national football association in a more recent one, and after being admitted as an advocate of the high court just last week, Leslie Sedibe, the Proudly South African CEO, has a new mission: to resurrect national pride among South African businesses and consumers.

One of the main objectives of Proudly SA is to lobby government and advocate for state policies that favour development of
local enterprises.

For a moment, I worry that the hour that has been set aside for the interview may just not be enough to drink from the well of Sedibe’s many and varied passions.

Happily, he has the discipline – enough for both of us – and the single-mindedness to stick to the script. We are here to talk about his work and thoughts as CEO of the organisation whose stated aim is “to boost job creation and pride in ‘local’ business by promoting South African companies and their ‘home-grown’ products and services”.

It is part of the Proudly SA mandate, along with advocating for policies that regulate state procurement processes that favour local supply ahead of price as a main consideration, and for beneficiation to ensure we stop “plundering our own resources and sell to overseas markets only to get them back as repackaged goods”.

Sedibe believes being Proudly SA and having favourable government policies could reverse what he says is a trend of local inventors selling their patents to overseas companies, especially the Chinese, and then getting local consumers to fawn over how advanced and competitive the Chinese are.

It is certain to be a difficult task. Proudly SA has lost some members and bite. In trying economic times, subscriptions and membership fees tend to be the first items to be scrapped from an organisation’s budget, he says.

For Sedibe, buying local is not just a matter of being proud of one’s country; it is an investment in the future of the country’s manufacturing sector and therefore in jobs.

He accepts that the Chinese are currently winning the hearts and minds of consumers with their seemingly unending supply of cheaper goods all round.

“There’s an Afrikaans saying ‘goedkoop is duurkoop’ (buying on the cheap is expensive). In the short term, it is true that the goods coming from China and such countries are cheaper. But the long-term implications are dire. In the long run, it will mean there will be no incentive for local manufacturers to produce.”

Sedibe describes the business model of flooding the market with cheap goods to one used by drug lords. Narcotics bosses, Sedibe says, tend to have a long-term plan that starts with supplying their merchandise at a much lower price until they run the competition out of town and then raising their prices when the consumers are hooked but have no one else to turn to.

Speaking of transformation and national pride, Sedibe recalls how the South African Football Association (he was the organisation’s CEO at the time) transformed the apathy of fans 40 days before the World Cup and had a positive impact on business associated with the tournament.

“If you check everywhere you will realise the Sandton parade was never part of the plan. We had to do something after (Local Organising Committee chairperson) Irvin Khoza complained that there was no buzz around the tournament.”

After the Sandton parade, the mood picked up. Bafana Bafana jerseys became de rigueur and manufacturers coined it, he says. It’s a pity that piracy – another of Proudly SA’s mortal enemies – also got in on the act and made a killing.

Sedibe believes the lessons learnt from how South Africans rallied around Bafana Bafana ought to have persuaded the bosses at SA Rugby to procure jerseys locally and boost the local economy instead of sourcing them from China.

While conceding that such sentiments may be cold comfort for consumers at pains to make ends meet, Sedibe insists these are grudge purchases that reflect more on the state of the economy rather than consumer preferences.

“These are desperate purchases. They are more circumstantial purchases and not really purchases of choice.” Sedibe points to the history of working-class communities – where even the lowest-paid workers insisted on certain fashion labels they could not ordinarily afford – as an example of South Africans not always shopping within their perceived income bracket.

Sitting on the couch in front of the huge Proudly SA banner, he has taken to the job like a duck to water. He not only walks the talk, he looks it too. I can’t decide if the navy pinstripe suit he is wearing is locally made, but he quickly points out that the shirt can be bought at Woolies for less than R400.

If only he could get the rest of local business and consumers to share his zeal.

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