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Who are “us”?

Koos Bekker

Speech delivered by Koos Bekker at Sandton on Tuesday, November 5th. The award was presented by Mathatha Tsedu, editor of the Sunday Times. The award, known as the Lifetime Achievers Award, is awarded by the Sunday Times.

Ladies and gentlemen —

I do not wish to make a Gwyneth Paltrow moment of this, but please allow me to recognise a few groups of people. You made it sound as if I did certain things, consequently I need to point to the crowd who started M-Net with me — Ton Vosloo, Cobus Stofberg, the late Jac van der Merwe, Chris Raats, and many more; the band that started MTN — first Ian Wilkenson and Steve Pacak, later Nail, Cyril Ramaphosa, and others; the founding entrepreneurs of Nethold in Europe and Irdeto and M-Web and Chinese QQ in particular. And our directors in the various companies, who had patience with us young idiots. I always had outstanding PAs, and some are here tonight.

Also my long-suffering family. Early on in our acquaintance I wanted to drag Karen to a corporate obligation and she said: “I don’t do wife.” She’s been a better companion for it.

I will speak to some individuals privately afterwards, and spare you much pain.

However, this award set me thinking. It was somewhat surprising, coming as it did from a competitor in some fields. But recalling the counsel we had from people in Johnnic and its predecessor companies — the wisdom of Hall Miller or the humanity of Doug Band of the Argus group of old; the way Steve Mulholland of TML inspired us with his raw courage; the friendship of Connie Molusi and Irene Charnley and Paul Jenkins and Jacob Modise: they are at the heart of what made our businesses go; they are in the inner circle; they are part of the concept of “us” in my head.

It is, of course, a complete fiction that individuals achieve very much. When groups of people begin working together, that’s when the world starts moving.

Now — how does one define the concept of “my group of people”, of “us” in this country?

Let’s run a mental experiment: One morning you are walking on a pier in a harbour and you see, ahead of you, a German tourist — well-groomed in chinos — buying a snoek from the son of a local brown fisherman. Watch out! A wave sweeps them away and, scrambling to dive in, you have time to save only one. Which of the two do you instinctively seize? Who is your brother?

Or, let’s place ourselves in the shoes of Colin Powell when he was in Johannesburg recently. He was sent by headmaster Bush to scold African leaders because they were not roughing up Bob Mugabe sufficiently. Now, had you been Colin, what would have weighed more heavily with you: loyalty to your country, or your sympathy for black people? Who really is “us”, Colin? Your countrymen, of which you’re a minister, or an international brotherhood of race?

Allow me a small detour. Our media industry has its little tensions from time to time. Each year my good PA retypes my address list and did so last week — half of the Europeans and Americans in the TMT industry are gone — bounced, jumped, history. At the moment a suitable emblem for our industry may be the headless chicken. People deal with this tension in various ways. Some play golf, some drink, I read myself to sleep on history.

The concept of “us” — as it happens — proved a powerful shaping force in history. Would you agree that the power of the United States derives largely from a wide definition of who fits the bill of “being an American”? The huddled masses came from all over the world and were admitted. Who are the icons of the US today? How about Sylvester Stallone, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jordan, Charlize Theron, Puff Daddy; or in business Andy Grove of Intel, Jack Welch ex-GE? Take your pick. These people or their recent ancestors came to the US dirt poor and some as slaves; today they are at the core of Americanness. You don’t have to be of the right family, or white, or male, or whatever to feel “I am at the heart of America, man; I belong here; no one has a better claim to this land than I — Hey, you diss my country I breaka your face.”

In this respect the USA resembles the Roman Empire, which lasted close on a thousand years. It lasted in the main because it absorbed the best and brightest from all over the then known world. If only you swore allegiance to Rome, your origin or the arch of your nose seldom mattered a jot. Incidentally, several Roman emperors came from cities in Africa. So did other celebs of the empire, like St Augustine. The definition of who a “Roman” could be, became open, and that created the fertile diversity that made Rome unbeatable.

Regrettably, history brims with examples of the opposite. In fact, a selective definition of the main macs in a society is rather the rule. Witness Spain. At the end of the fifteenth century it was the richest, most advanced country in the world, with command of both the silver of Latin America and the great ocean-going fleets. Then the rulers, aiming for a purer country, drove out the heretics and weirdos and Semites and Moslems. Spain never recovered and never was great again.

In our country the Afrikaners, born of rough and diverse parents, did much the same thing. Gradually, having had power for a while, they developed airs and became conscious of their racial purity. Some historian who had read their prior history carefully may well feel like Oscar Levant, who said of the actress Doris Day that he had known her before she became a virgin. Instead of absorbing the brightest and best of other groups in the country, they alienated them. In the end, the inner circle of the ruling Afrikaner elite became so pure and inbred that the power structure collapsed.

Now, what should one make of the ANC in this respect? I would suggest that its history thus far is encouraging. It has largely avoided the worst excesses of tribalism and racism. Contrast that with Kenya, for example, which some of us saw again last month — where the Kikuyu rule the roost and the shops in the main street of Mombasa haven’t been painted since the Indians were driven out. Compare that with the representation of people of Indian origin in our Cabinet. Agriculture there never recovered from the emigration of the pink farmers. Unhappy examples abound elsewhere; but we, in this country, under this government, had a lucky start.

However, however, these things are fragile. Each generation has to fight the battle for tolerance and diversity all over again. America the Great first had a liberal constitution and then slavery until long after us; it had McCarthyism in the 1950s and overcame that in the 60s. It now again has a president who, many of us fear, may well admire unilateralism and absolutism and purity and all the goodies that make for imperial decline.

If you believe that open societies, once open, can’t be so stupid as to deteriorate, consider that Nazi Germany was built on the Prussia of Frederick the Great — who entertained writers and thinkers from all over Europe and was so cosmopolitan that he wrote verses in French. On this rather open architecture, the Germans then built a nightmare. Eventually the Nazis defined a genuine German as someone of the true Aryan race, who believed in the true party, and was loyal to the true leader, and then, after the assassination bids, was in Hitler’s inner circle; and the inner circle got so claustrophobic that it ended in a single bunker.

Perhaps we as a country will learn from these examples, and perhaps we will not.

What’s one’s best guess? I don’t know.

But let us run two scenarios mentally.

The first one involves a South Africa where you really have to be black to make it big time. The bright pink and brown kids leave, and the dull stay and despair. Shortly, in an atmosphere of less and less tolerance, higher degrees of purity are demanded: you have to be black-black, then preferably from the right family, then from an inner circle which grows richer and more corrupt by the day. That is and has been the pattern in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Previously Europe had excellent examples of this, of which the aristocracy are relics that survive even today. In this scenario, then, the talents bleed off, the economy declines, the vigour of diversity is sapped; down and down it goes.

Perhaps someone here would argue that the inflow/outflow of people is not statistically big, or has declined over time. Today some 175 million people, equal to three times the population of Britain, live outside their country of birth. Who are they, you ask, typically? Admittedly included are some of the shoeless simply fleeing slaughter by some tyrant, but in the main, these emigrés are highly educated. Item: India has lost some one million people to the US alone. More than three quarters of those of working age have a bachelor’s degree or better. As The Economist recently remarked: “Not only are the skilled disproportionately likely to leave: it is often the best of the crop.” Item: About 30% of all highly educated Ghanaians now live abroad. When I studied in the US, I befriended four people who came directly from other African countries and adjacent islands; today I’m the only one left in Africa. Item: the Pew Hispanic Institute calculates that 75% of all Jamaicans with higher education live in the US today. Item: the UK’s Department for International Development found that three quarters of Africa’s emigrants have tertiary education. The cream of Africa is saying “Bye!”

But across the water Canada and Australia have created a “points” system to better attract skills; the US have increased its temporary work permits to better suck up highly qualified people.

And we?

Our Department of Home Affairs is clueless. Statistics SA says 83 000 emigrants left South Africa between 1989 and 1997, and they don’t know who or why. Young graduates don’t pitch up at the customs booth at the airport and go: “Hi, I’m Jolene, I’m an MSc computer boff and I’m emigrating because you don’t love me.” They simply, quietly, slink away. A UCT study calculated that three times more — 233 000 — South Africans actually left permanently during this period; each emigrant carries with him all our investment in his education, and his future tax payments for schools and hospitals, and her contributions to pension funds, and the future cars and buns and hairdressing appointments she will need — over a lifetime millions of rands per household.

Stop! you say. How can we fight this? A question: Do you think we can successfully compete in the international market and pull an American PhD from Berkeley? No way. Maybe persuade a South African expat PhD to return? Better chance, but he’s now earning dollars, so you need a sleek chat-up line. So what do we do? As each marketer knows, it’s much easier to keep your existing customers than to go and find new ones out there. Isn’t our best chance in the short term to keep the people we’ve got, to hang on for dear life, to staunch the bleeding?

And how? Well, the economy matters and crime and many things, but so do the atmospherics. Let’s play another version of the movie.

Scenario two: In this South Africa, diversity is prized. People of all races and sexes and languages and religions, or lack of these, feel: “Hey, man, I’m a big deal here. This is my country, I’m just like Marion Jones or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Charlize Theron in America: I walk tall.” The country then brims with self-confidence and entrepreneurship and the wealth and fecundity of diversity. Who will stop us?

So, if you like the movie, let’s run a scene further in our minds. There’s a white South African colleague of yours at a formal dinner party in London, and a Brit across the mahogany table says: “These bloody Africans ...” Your white colleague’s response begins with: “We’re not … dot … dot … “ Man, then we’re OK. Or when some merchant banker from St John’s Wood, passing the mint sauce, states: “Those stupid people, those — what do you call them — Verwoerds and Oppenheimers, they really messed up the place,” and your black colleague next to you says: “Yes, we did screw up, didn’t we?” Well, then we’re cooking with gas; then one will know that the past belongs to all of us and the future belongs to all of us and what a bright future that will be!

So, if we try hard, can we be an open, diverse, vibrant society that grows rich and happy? I don’t really know, but … Shall we try?

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.


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