Solly Moeng | Coronavirus may force us to start again. Let's do better

Solly Moeng
Solly Moeng

There are, broadly, three categories of business activities. The first, the traditional way, requires people to travel to and physically assemble in one or several places in order to do their work.

The second is on the opposite end of the spectrum and consists of all those business activities that are already part of the 'new economy' and can mostly be performed online, on a variety of digital platforms.

The third category is most interesting, pregnant with opportunities, and must be watched, as it stretches along the continuum between the first two.

This is where most opportunities of the future will be found, and where a good portion of investments in R&D to help Africa realise a sustainable, inclusive, integrated economic development must go. If effectively exploited, the worrisome, perennial phenomenon of youth unemployment can be defeated.

We all have choices

It is also the category where most nervous individuals and businesses currently find themselves as they wonder what the future holds for them, in a world that they have pretended not to see changing gradually up to now, but whose need to move faster into the future is being given a kick in the butt – right before our eyes – by the ongoing global efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is a West African saying that goes like this: "The moment we're born into this world; we're condemned to live this life". So, all of us have choices to make.

Are we going to be victims of the changes taking place right before our eyes? Will these changes render us obsolete, make us to be left behind or cast aside?

Are we going to be mere followers, expecting others to forever carry us on their back or, better, are we going to become active co-creators of a future social and economic order, as part of the human and economic peloton that will help define its rules of engagement?

More questions than answers

Many are asking themselves, "Should we stop our current business and start something else, from scratch?"

"Should we start thinking of different ways to run our business without the need to drive and physically assemble in the same place with our colleagues and employees?"

"What do we stand to lose?"

"Will we be among the survivors of this transition, or will we be part of those who will be cast aside and left behind?"

"What part of what we do cannot be done differently, with minimal physical contact, and must probably be ditched, and what part stands to constitute the basis of our investments and future growth?"

 

These seem like many questions. The truth is that they form part of an even larger pool of questions that we have to ask ourselves about how we, social humans that we are, must interact differently with one another in the future, mindful of our vulnerabilities to easily and fast transmitted viral pandemics, without losing our gregarious nature.  

Opportunities for SA and other emerging markets

In a country such as ours, a large and growing percentage of economic activities is of a subsistence type, happening in the informal economy. This is a common feature of underdeveloped and emerging economies around the world.

When disruptions happen that force people to stay home – unable to trade in the streets –something, many things, have to give. Sacrifices have to be made. Tears end up being shed. Lots of tears. I have just heard of a friend's brother being placed under suicide watch. For him, the recently announced 21-day shutdown comes on the heels of a failed business that he had run for many years, resulting in him no longer being able to provide for his family; his wife leaving him as a result of that and, more recently, a tour guiding business that he established in early 2019, and had begun to grow, being forced to fold because of a fast growing list of Covid-19 related cancellations. The ripple effects are dizzying.

Wanted: Large doses of uBuntu

None of us must underestimate the depth of pain that many will feel as a result of the shutdown, necessary as it is, despite the laudable finance relief package made available by government and business to assist some Small and Medium Enterprises. A quick glance at the criteria handed down for qualification to benefit from the proposed package makes it clear that many SMMEs will fall into the "missing middle" category and be disqualified on technicalities.

Those are the ones that will either fail entirely to make it through the battle against Covid-19 or have to quickly think on their feet and find ways to remain standing – surviving on their own 'power saving mode' - while they figure out ways to make it into the future economy. They must be mindful of the reality that what is happening will impact both the supply and the demand side of the economy, and must therefore be well positioned to service new, yet to be defined, demand and consumption patterns.

We must work as one

It is a good thing that, apart from a handful of cynics, South Africans have, by and large, stood behind government's overall management of the crisis communication to date, around efforts to contain and stop the spread of Covid-19.

South Africans of all backgrounds have also welcomed the president's announcement of the 21-day lockdown and, going by conversations on social media, will do their utmost to abide by its requirements. This is where we should give meaning to the principle of uBuntu – I am because you are – and see this time as an opportunity to hold hands again from across our stubborn historic laagers and help those who are vulnerable and need our support during this time.

We co-create our future

But we should also start or accelerate serious discussions about the economic South Africa of the future in the context of an Africa that seems more determined than ever to integrate economic development across national borders, on one hand, and a broader world that is also facing the same questions that we are but is, in many parts, far more technologically advanced in application.

African continental, regional and national leaders have their role cut out for them in driving policies and legislation that will help create enabling environments for the transition.

Business leaders, labour unions, research facilities and academia, as well as other civil society structures also have a role to play as part of what must become a seamless African pact to use the challenges of our times as opportunities to imagine and to co-shape a world in which more people will be included. 

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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