Starting at ground zero

2010-07-14 00:00

MANY moons ago, when I was a young journalist working for Business Day, I found myself across the table from a bank executive. He was black.

Ironically, not only were there no black bank executives at the time, but there were no black executives period. This was during the height of apartheid. The groot krokodil, P. W. Botha, had delivered his famous Rubicon Speech. The future looked bleak. Markets were collapsing, economic sanctions were biting, the rand had been sent into a tailspin and there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel. It was dark, really dark.

So, the black banker looked me straight in the eyes and said: “Sipho, we blacks must have our own mines and we must start our own airlines. We must start and grow our own industrial conglomerates. We must own banks.”

There was a pause, and then my brain raced back and forth in total confusion.

This is bizarre, I said to myself. What’s wrong with this man? How can a black person own a mine, a bank or an airline? Is it possible that a person can be this foolhardy? I kept asking myself all these questions. Who is this guy anyway?

The black banker turned out to be an ex-Robben Island prisoner who in 1963, at age 19, had been sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for political activities. On his release, he was banished to some remote area of what is today the North West Province. He had left the country on a Fulbright Scholarship to the United States and was later recruited by City Bank and ended up on Wall Street.

He was invited back to South Africa when the then CEO of Barclays Bank, Chris Ball, recruited him to the bank’s CEO’s office as an executive. When I met him then he had just been appointed CEO of another company.

Because I was so young and inexperienced and so blinded by the context of apartheid, I could not see beyond where I was sitting. Because I was surrounded with so much that was bleak, I could not see beyond the darkness. But this man, this crazy man, was already operating outside and beyond this darkness. He was ahead of his time. That’s exactly what happens when you are ahead of your time. You get into trouble because people do not comprehend what you are saying.

Now, earlier this year, I saw the same man on television: “Blacks must start their businesses from ground zero,” he barked.

But this time I was not confused. I understood, appreciated and embraced every statement he made.

“Blacks must start their businesses from ground zero and grow them.”

This brings me to a story I read in one of the local financial dailies recently.

The report is about a group of black Eastern Cape women who have formed themselves into a successful sewing co-operative with the help of VW Group (SA) as a strategic ally.

According to this report, back in 2004, three informal sewing groups based in Uitenhage formed a co-operative to sew school uniforms and other items resulting in the creation of more than 30 jobs.

Apparently, it is this group of women who are behind the colourful Woolworths fabric shopping bag. The group produces 7 600 of these bags per week. The bags are usually pink in colour, they carry the Woolworths branding and you can use them time and time again. The co-operative, which turns over R2 million a year, has also signed a 30% off-take agreement with Woolworths.

The point is that these women, instead of running around on a wild goose chase of some weird, token BEE deal, have actually knuckled down and created something for themselves, their families and the economy. They are hands-on, therefore they have first-hand business experience.

Listen up. This is a clarion call. Do something. Start something. Start something in your garage, your dining room, your bedroom, your Reconstruction and Development Programme house. But please start something.

As my ex-Wall Street banker said: let’s start our businesses from ground zero and grow them.

What a pleasure.


• Sipho Ngcobo is former deputy editor of Business Report and ex-managing editor of Enterprise Magazine. He has also written for such publications as the Sunday Times, the World Paper in Boston and was employed by the New York Times Group in the United States between 1989 and 1991.

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