Don’t pack for Perth

2008-04-02 00:00

Sad about the rand and the petrol price? Thinking of emi- or semi-grating because of crime? Nauseated by Eskom and sick of the sight of Alec Erwin? Well, what on Earth is your problem?

Get with the programme, South Africa. Don’t panic and pack for Perth. Rather stay and create the South Africa you want to have. That, in a nutshell, is the sentiment of dynamic Johannesburg businessman Alan Knott-Craig, MD of the company i-Burst — a wireless Internet provider — who has unleashed a fresh wave of optimism across the country.

Knott-Craig (30) unwittingly sparked a whole mini-movement when he sent an inspirational e-mail to his staff about turning 2008 into a year of opportunity and called on them to change their attitudes and look on the bright side.

In his message, published in The Witness earlier this year, Knott-Craig — who describes himself as a “hungry and ambitious” kind of guy — acknowledged that, while things looked pretty rosy at the end of 2007, suddenly South Africans are buying candles and researching the property market in Australia. This, he pointed out, is due to a cocktail of bad news stemming from the recession in the United States, the high interest rates, crime and, of course, the power outages.

“But don’t panic,” he urged his 300-plus staff members. “This is not the first time there’s been doom and gloom. Every few years the same thing happens. We experience massive economic growth, everyone is optimistic and buying Nescafé Gold, holiday homes and Mercs. The positivity gets ahead of itself and the economy overheats, and then panic sets in because the economy seems to be collapsing when, in actual fact, it’s simply making an adjustment back to a reasonable level.”

Knott-Craig’s e-mail came about after a conversation he had with Zoe Barnett, an employee who was feeling disillusioned about the state of the nation.

It didn’t take long before many members of his staff had forwarded his message to their friends and family. “Some people sent it to their spouses and others to friends overseas. The next thing I was getting calls from all over South Africa and from places like Norway, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England and Argentina. So many people mailed me. Many of them just said thank you. They felt, as I did, that people were getting caught up in a sweep of negativity,” Knott-Craig said in an interview with The Witness.

A lot of people entered the spirit of things and sent him coffee — and soon Knott-Craig’s e-mail had been picked up by Carte Blanche, Radio 702 and Huisgenoot and You magazines, which resulted in a flood of support from around South Africa.

Then Louise Grantham, a publisher at Penguin Books, read the e-mail and decided the idea needed to grow into a book. One thing led to another and, a few weeks ago, i-Burst and Penguin set up a blog, SMS and e-mail forum and invited all South Africans to contribute their positive thoughts about South Africa.

Penguin Books will publish a selection of these thoughts in a book called Don’t Panic — scheduled for release in the middle of May and with the aim of motivating South Africans. All royalties from the book will go to a youth empowerment trust, the Tomorrow Trust. All South Africans are invited to place a comment on the blog www.iburst.co.za, to SMS contributions to 31889 (standard SMS rates apply) or e-mail dontpanic@iburstgroup.co.za

Explaining his own motivation, Knott-Craig said he has travelled the world and does not think South Africans have a very bad deal at all. “My philosophy is always to take a step back and get perspective. “I have been lucky enough to see a lot of countries — and I think we live in the best country in the world.”

The chartered accountant (CA) businessman, who grew up in Pretoria, worked for Deloittes on Wall Street before selling everything he had and backpacking through Central and South America, and Asia.

He returned to South Africa at the end of 2003 and started four businesses, including i-Burst.

So, what makes Alan Knott-Craig want to stay in South Africa? “As a CA, I consider myself rational, logical and quite cynical. I tend to see the negative side of things and don’t fool myself. I believe that our economy is strong, we have a lot of resources and the world needs them — and we have pumped a great deal of money into infrastructure. We have a terrific economy. And, in terms of the 2010 World Cup, I don’t think anybody knows how massive it is going to be for South Africa.

“Have you ever met anybody in the United States of America who knows exactly where South Africa is? There are billions of people in the world — and a very small percentage of those people know anything about SA. The World Cup is going to put us on the map. Everybody will know where South Africa is and that is massive.”

Knott-Craig believes that if South Africa gets the Soccer World Cup right, “they will give us the Olympics, and that will pull us along further”.

While he acknowledges that crime, service delivery and the electricity crisis are realistic concerns, other plus factors, in his view, are things we take for granted — like the weather and the fact that the country possesses a huge chunk of the world’s resources, like gold, platinum, coal and iron. “The growth in India and China will continue to accelerate and so will their demand for our resources. The government has already embarked on massive infrastructure projects — some of them a tad late, like the electricity — and this will pump money into the economy. There are a number of fundamental factors that will keep SA going for a long time.”

Other positive points? “Well, I have a garden, and there are great schools.”

And, yes, says Knott-Craig, another plus is the fact that in South Africa, you can help people. “In Switzerland, for instance, there is nobody to help. I do think human beings need people to help.”

So, are there many people who feel positive about South Africa and who are not panicking? “A lot of middle-class people are feeling that they should leave the country for the safety of their children. My wife is pregnant. The way I see it is that if I had two children and decided to leave, I would go from being happy and unsafe to being safe and unhappy. It is understandable for people to leave because of crime or because they are unemployed and white.

“What I am saying is before you decide to do anything, take a step back and remember that South Africa today is a land of opportunity and the guys who stick it out will get all the opportunities. If you decide to do anything, first take a step back and take a deeper look. Then seize the day and see the scope.”

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