Reading into a brighter future

2014-04-02 00:00

RETIRED advertising guru Peter Vundla and author of his recently released biography, Doing Time, arrived in Pietermaritzburg last week.

He was outside the city hall and asked a young man for directions to the library, where his book launch was to be held. Vundla was shocked that the person did not know that the building right next to the city hall was the library. Vundla said he wrote the book as his contribution to inculcating a culture of reading.

He chuckles as he recalls the public protector’s response to the ANC Youth League’s rubbishing of her report on the excessive expenditure on Nkandla. She said her only advice to the Youth League was to read. Vundla is a firm believer that a lot that is wrong in South African society, particularly a dysfunctional education system, can be put right if “we can get the nation reading”.

Vundla said he also wrote the book to restore certain legacies that had been trampled upon. As he spoke to an audience of mainly young people, details emerged of an awe-inspiring, rags-to-riches story, achieved through hard work, integrity and a good deal of adventurism. Vundla has some hard-hitting and not very complimentary opinions of the present government. But he has hope for the future and he said he finds it in unexpected places like Pietermaritzburg.

The present-day chairperson of the board of the Mail & Guardian, Vundla was the eighth of 16 children, 11 of whom survived. His parents were well-known residents of Soweto and he can remember Nelson Mandela being a visitor at their home. His father, Philip Qipu Vundla, an activist, businessperson and civic leader, was his role model. He followed in his father’s enterprising footsteps when he broke new ground and started Herdbuoys, the first black-owned advertising agency that was initially run from his Soweto home. He told the audience that entrepreneurship was about hard work and sacrifice, and not what has come to be expected — the dishing out of tenders. He was also critical that shareholding had taken root as a way to make money: “We have holding companies buying into existing ones, and we are not seeing new companies like Black like Me [a hair products company] or Herdbuoys coming out.”

Talking about the formation of his company, Vundla said that for the first six months of Herdbuoys, he and his partners did not draw a salary. They also had firm principles on how they were going to run their business.

“From the beginning I knew that for Herdbuoys to succeed, we needed to be a value-driven organisation. Chief among these values was integrity. For me integrity is the all-encompassing value. All else flows from it. Everything we did or said had to have integrity. And I was to lead by example,” he said.

Vundla had a bruising experience that compromised his integrity when he got involved in Pamodzi Investment Holdings, whose business dealings were a far cry from the standard of integrity he had set himself. He said another reason for writing the book was to set the record straight about his time at Pamodzi. He said he did not know that he had entered into a world of intrigue, deceit, abuse and poor governance.

A close associate of former president Thabo Mbeki, Vundla remains loyal. He said that at least with Mbeki, the country knew what he stood for. “Regretably, we have a leader, and I don’t know what he stands for and I don’t know what he is doing in this country. I wish he would tell us,” Vundla said.

Asked by a young member of the audience about black economic empowerment, the author said that the current regime seemed to be more concerned about enriching themselves than broad-based economic empowerment.

“Black business structures are more concerned about being close to Zuma and the whispers of tenders. We don’t hear talk about nurturing small black businesses, so what we have today is an abomination of BEE.”

Vundla should know, he was on Mbeki’s Presidential Black Business Working Group that crafted the policy around BEE.

Asked how he saw the future of the country, Vundla said he did not know because, “the present regime appears so anti-intellectual at the moment. Pupils are leaving school without being able to read and write, and graduates are leaving universities ill-prepared. We need skills and training, but this is talked about and never acted upon,” he said.

However, Vundla did feel hopeful and he said his hope sprung from the young people he met around the country who were wanting to make a difference.

“There are a lot of noise makers and they seem to take over and people believe this is the character of our country. It is not the case. There are many good, engaged people in the country and there are many good things happening.”

He pointed to the gathering at the Bessie Head Library: “Look at you. I am inspired when I meet young people like you who are thinking deeply about issues, who are involved in a range of activities, who are reading and who are questioning,” he said.

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