As I come to the end of my tenure with my second South African company I thought it might be interesting to reflect on 5 years of working with my adopted Southern Hemisphere countrymen. This now seems especially pertinent given the news yesterday that ABInBev are moving towards a takeover bid for SABMiller – if successful it is highly likely that the organisation will change beyond all recognition.
Bias disclaimer: I am a huge fan of South Africa and I am a huge fan of South Africans. I wholeheartedly believe that there are traits intrinsic to South Africa and in particular South African businesses that make both a hugely powerful and constructive force in the world. Obviously – like everywhere else on the planet – it’s not perfect.
So, the following 5 points are general observations based on my personal experience and are peculiar (I believe) to engagement with South Africans as both a British person and a businessman. As follows:
1) South Africans will always “stab you in the front”.
British people are, on the whole, somewhat over-sensitive when it comes to perceptions of themselves in the work place. 5 years of working with South Africans has knocked that out of me in the best way possible. The experience desensitises you just enough to remove the thin-skinned and flighty British characteristics that make you question your own direction and your own beliefs. The flip-side is of course that you can be affronted or even take offence even when faced with well meaning, constructive criticism. In time however, it becomes second nature to back yourself, be honest and maintain an open dialogue at all times.
2) South Africa is closer to the action.
The Western world has caught onto the fact, finally, that the economic centre has shifted East. To some extent we (the popular public consciousness) are starting to understand that the pace of economic growth in sub Saharan Africa is a force to be reckoned with. Ethiopia is the fastest growing economy in the world. Tanzania, Mozambique, DRC, Cote D’Ivoire and Rwanda are not far behind. Nigeria’s smartphone penetration is north of 30%. South Africa sometimes inspires and sometimes absorbs these movements through the migration of people and technology and is a hub through which Africa more broadly can be understood and experienced.
3) South Africa likes entrepreneurs.
It suits their psychology. To be an entrepreneur (my opinion) you have to have unwavering self-belief, an ability and spirit that will drive progression at a terrifying pace and a pragmatism that means you are not easily distracted. I have met and enjoyed working with many South African entrepreneurs in the technology, journalism and manufacturing spaces and have found their strength of conviction as disarming as their warmth and enthusiasm. It seems to be a country that at its best fosters an indomitable spirit to do better. Some of it is competitive in nature – but most of it seems driven by a sincere desire to improve and to foster a culture of inclusion and pride.
4) South Africans value, acknowledge and reward hard work.
You will have to work harder, faster and under more pressure than in a European context. By default you will be expected to create your own path, be completely accountable and to build something successful with very little support. But if you can do that (and after all isn’t that part of the challenge of being in business) and you can take people along with you for the journey – then the reward *should* more than justify the effort.
5) South Africa promotes Diversity and Equality in the modern world.
Again, the notion that things have to progress is central here. Of course, it goes back hundreds of years and the causes are well documented. Important but imperfect initiatives like BBBEE typify this “we just have to get on with it” approach. Of course a sea change is difficult to implement but it is borne out of a collective acknowledgement that a balance needs to be redressed. The point is really that this drive and prioritisation is something sorely missing in most European organisations. We think of ourselves as moderate and subsequently there is no need to rock a particular boat – yet we know there is an underlying inequality in senior positions when it comes to gender or race. Whether the legislation or apparatus exists is almost of secondary importance – we seem to have a predisposition that means we almost don’t believe in a requirement for intervention in this way.
Working with my South African colleagues over the last 5 years has enriched my life enormously. I also work as a mentor to a South African entrepreneur (hi Noxy) whose drive for progress, undiluted altruism and enthusiasm constantly amazes and inspires me. I find the country to be richly diverse, astonishingly complex and transcendently beautiful.
So – on the basis of the above 5 points my advice for British business people would be: go and work with some South Africans. 6 months in you’ll have wiped away the tears, started to take yourself less seriously and have progressed more than you ever thought possible.
Really though - I just like South Africans. They keep you on your toes.