The call came on her birthday. President Cyril Ramaphosa wanted businesswoman Phumzile Langeni to join his presidential special envoy to travel the world wooing investors.
She initially thought it was a joke. But once she realised he was being serious, the enormity of what he was asking hit her.
Langeni will join former finance minister Trevor Manuel, former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas and former Standard Bank head Jacko Maree on a quest to raise $100 billion (R1.2 trillion) in new investment in the next five years.
It’s part of Ramaphosa’s big push to boost the economy and create jobs to decrease the wealth gap.
“My biggest nightmare is we come short by a billion dollars, but I believe we will deliver on the target … But as I sit here I feel fortified and I have a bit of wind beneath my wings … people have reached out … the response by fellow South Africans has been phenomenal. We can’t forget that we have 55 million people doing this job alongside us,” Langeni said.
One of these is economist Trudi Makhaya, whom Ramaphosa appointed as his economic adviser. She will coordinate the work of the special envoys, as well as have the ear of the president on all matters economic.
Makhaya and Langeni were both honoured on Friday by the Businesswomen’s Association of SA and UN Women at a breakfast in Sandton.
Besides raising a truckload of money to boost the ailing economy, Makhaya and Langeni spoke about their goals of reworking the economy and trying to rebuild a public sector “that works for all of us, especially women”.
‘Bromance’ and ‘dude culture’ in business must fall
“We need to rebuild our state institutions in a way that’s not exclusionary,” said Makhaya.
“We need to get away from this ‘bromance’ and ‘dude culture’ that often characterises entrepreneurship.”
This will entail rewriting the policies that govern South Africa. Makhaya believes that a move away from wording such as “black economic empowerment” (BEE) to words such as “diversity” might open it up to all of those who are on the margins of the economy, including women.
Langeni said women spend a high proportion of their income on families, communities and surrounding areas.
“When women are educated and given access to health, and some of the barriers standing in their way are addressed, there is an increase of at least 25% in productivity,” said Langeni,
But it’s not just about women.
“Men don’t understand the intricacies of what it means to be a woman. Our duty is to put women first. Not to relegate men to the side; we are saying that women have every right to be at the centre and to talk about women empowerment,” said Langeni.
“By advancing the women agenda we are probably going to be ‘saving’ everyone – don’t forget that men also suffer when it comes to discrimination. We have inherited an economy that is exclusionary and hierarchical, in which a few companies are thriving. The idea is to open it up; diversify,” said Makhaya.
Opening industries to new entrants would create a different conversation about BEE – “which became a bit of rent-seeking; a percentage here, a percentage there. It didn’t create black operators”, said Makhaya.
Embrace diversity to grow the economy
So how do these two relative newcomers to the government sphere believe they can engender more competition in the economy and ensure attempts to diversify it don’t fall flat?
“It’s about opening up that architecture of the economy. All government policy must be structured around diversity,” said Makhaya.
The investment team now needs to figure out its value proposition.
“There are many emerging markets seeking funding. South Africa has some advantages. It’s relatively developed, it has excellent infrastructure, stable markets and some of the top-ranked institutions in the world. We do have money in South Africa. We just need to unlock it,” said Langeni.
Makhaya and Langeni are approaching their next big missions as a journey of 55 million South Africans that requires each one to raise a hand and say “this is what I can do”.
“I am part of a progressive society, I am the change that I want to see that can take us further,” said Langeni.
“We are the best advocates for what we want to see. The time has come for us to be at the forefront and push the women agenda in an unapologetic way. If we wait for men to drive it we will be very disappointed,” said Langeni.
“Hopefully, Trudi and I can make some difference in driving transformation forward.”
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