Cees Bruggemans: Good Ship SA – change the captain, change the future

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In life the one thing you can’t take back is time, so it should be spent wisely. And in Cees Bruggemans’ latest piece he references South Africa’s journey to that of a sailboat. Presently the economy is headed up wind, facing the oncoming challenges – a howling hurricane. But with time, there are the means to turn the sail boat around to head down wind – a much easier place to navigate. But what’s needed, well it’s the same question we’ve have been asking since the present leadership took over, a good Captain cut of the right cloth. Only time will tell. – Stuart Lowman

By Cees Bruggemans*

A country has the choice of two major options when going for a walk in a stiff breeze, at times bordering on hurricane strength: wind in the back, or going against the wind. Sitting it out isn’t an option…

It is advisable to know the difference when going for a walk in 12 degree weather, with a cutting wind chill to boot. Wind in the back is the clever way, fighting endless gusts of cutting cold winds head-on isn’t.

A country of course doesn’t have to consider a return journey. Its walk is endless.

When a country like South Africa contemplates the ultimate makeover, reducing the historically dominant imprint of a few small minor tribes in favour of large major tribes, intending the influence of the majority to rise in every facet of daily life, until setting the pace and being “the face”, like a blender mixing stuff up and rearranging things fundamentally, its walk to economic freedom faces this choice whether it wants to go into the wind, or with the wind, either way leading to destinations, even if not the same.

South Africa started on this journey with what turned out to be mixed messages. We want the private sector to keep doing what it does best, the story went, and the politicians will look after the public sector, and a few other odds and ends along the way.

This turned out to be another one of those situations where one doesn’t pay too much attention to what is being said, but scrutinises closely what’s done.

For the mood music changed decidedly as time went by, being from the start heavy-handed about the public sector (though it could have been far worse, going by other country examples) and becoming increasingly strident about the role and shape of the private sector.

In the beginning, all this partly reflected inexperience with running a country, with subsequently the old moderating voices going quiet, not enough hands-on control over subordinates running wild until finally the deeply traditionalist and ideological crews joined forces, captured the high ground, and proceeded to systematically dig in and change the tenor of things, well away from apparent original intentions.

In the process the good sailing ship Lollipop (SA South Africa) decidedly changed course, from the initial intention of largely running with the wind to one where the steering wheel was given nearly daily whirls, often apparently for the fun of it by cadres pursuing many interests but not generally the set course.

And so the good ship steadily veered off course, from going fore the wind, to one ending up going into the teeth of the by now howling hurricane.

This could not necessarily be blamed on one person only, making mistakes in extremis often having many faces, engaging in many mishaps, and all this accumulating over the time. But Captains do carry overall responsibility and should take the fall when things go wrong, unless of course very shrewd, with no evidence of any oversight regulations being adhered, essentially being above the law and making things up as the good ship proceeds. Like piracy captains of old.

The difference in experience between running before the wind or into the wind can be startling.

It is the contrast of a smooth sailing, happy contented crew, speedy progress and growing riches as the journey proceeds as compared to a wildly bucking ride, a seasick crew becoming progressively disenchanted, bordering on insurrection, questioning the authority and ethics of the Captain with every roll of the ship, which takes the daily pounding very badly, steadily being thrashed to the point of visibly deteriorating and no longer quite sea-shape.

That is what the power of compound interest can do, when high and generating rejuvenation, transformation and enrichment, apparently nearly effortlessly, as the crew and ship mesh well, there is coordination and order and things run smoothly in a well run, shipshape ship.

This in contrast when the rum bottle goes around frequently, ships officers lying blindly about their qualifications or otherwise hearing voices telling them what to do, either with great vehemence pursuing ideological ideas, claiming to see no headwinds where there are only monstrous seas, or otherwise paying off the mutinous crew with untold freebies in the hope someone will do the right things as compared to all being far too busy with private pursuits to bother about the general welfare.

A tall tale?

A 5.5% average GDP growth rate, the norm in large parts of Africa in recent years, and not beyond a well-run SA ship, would increase real national income six-fold in a generation (and four-fold per capita…).

More importantly, it would allow a 3% growth in formal employment, allowing a more than doubling in formal employment to close to 25 million over the same time span, with the labour force grown to well over 30 million, but with the informal sector still sizeable.

It implies a shrinking of the unemployed and discouraged from 1-in-3 to 1-in-10, with the insider/outsider dilemma transformed out of recognition to its present reality. All this of course with an incentivized crew rather than the blindly-furious mutinous one we currently have.

Could we turn the good ship Lollipop around once more?

It could be done. One good whirl of the steering wheel and there you go. Mind you, the difficult part is getting hold and keeping control of the steering wheel, after which the great task of getting order among the crew, everyone knowing and accepting his role and tasks as befits a well-run ship, and no longer any of the excesses, ideological woolly thinking or populist gestures of recent years.

That is a tall order. But it shouldn’t be beyond a good Captain cut of the right cloth. As to the crew, the British navy fought Napoleon mostly with press gangs and the most unpromising human material on this earth, and won.

We are probably miles better off in the available human capital, but it isn’t really shipshape, something a few experienced boatswains (indunas…) could achieve, given sufficient leeway.

Those leadership elements remain present, just not in control.

Give it time. Any crew wearies of hurricanes, seasickness, a stamping and rolling ship not going anywhere particular, except looking for more hurricane.

Clearer thinking, less mindless stuff, much more order in the ranks are some of the things that come to mind. And a bit more final cadre deployment. The outer Hebrides or Falklands are lovely places in the depth of winter to drop those cadres no longer needed (instead of at old-time Tahiti as is now the case…).

And then the serious business of starting all over again and actually achieving something impressive. Somebody’s Legacy Making for the taking.

Alternatively, yet more hurricane…?

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