‘The one thing all of South Africa’s greatest business leaders have in common is that they navigate the noise,’ said host of The Money Show on 702 and Cape Talk, Bruce Whitfield, in his opening address to the Nation Builder In Good Company Conference last year. By taking us down the hallways of recent history, Whitfield gives us substantiated reasons to see South Africa’s future through the lens of ‘opportunity and optimism’.
‘Why is it that so many people feel so negative about the future of South Africa?’ asked Bruce in his opening remarks. His view: ‘because we have lost faith in the ability of South Africa to ever resurrect itself.’
‘South Africa is not a binary story – it isn’t just a one-track corruption tale. The country is far more nuanced and complicated than that,’ said Bruce, ‘but nobody is telling a holistic story – nobody is telling a story about opportunity and opportunism in South Africa.’
Using crisis as a catalyst for change
Amidst the doom and gloom of Covid-19, climate change, riots, inequalities and a plethora of other issues, we need to try and find the opportunities. ‘It’s about taking the crisis and using it as a catalyst for change,’ explained Bruce. ‘That is the great opportunity that South Africa presents and, more often than not, we ignore it because we are so busy focusing on the mess in front of us that we fail to look forward.’
Crisis gives us a great opportunity to really grasp a problem and deal with it. We see increasing levels of revolt, anger and rage all around the world – this isn’t just a South African phenomenon, Bruce highlighted: ‘Today, there are roughly 50 countries dealing with large-scale protests at various levels. Sure, in South Africa we feel it more personally, but in reality there are many people who feel disassociated and dislocated from the mainstream, who are trying to express themselves. What it really is, is a cry for help,’ said Bruce.
Welcome to the disinformation age
The majority of what we believe is happening in South Africa is because of the conversations that we’re having with family, friends, colleagues or with people online. Whether we like it or not, we are extremely easily influenced and shaped by those around us, as well as the online platforms and groups we hang out in online. ‘Never before have so many people had so much power in their hands to spread disinformation,’ said Bruce. He believes that social media has become a powerful tool of disinformation.
Bruce emphasised that we must be so careful about what we believe – especially if it’s information we got on social media: ‘The truth travels very slowly, unfortunately. Our job is to pay extreme attention, to not take things at face value, and always double-check the facts,’ he said.
Who did this to us vs what did we do wrong?
So much of what happens in the social media world is about ‘Who did this to us? Who can we blame? Who can we hate?’ instead of ‘What have we done wrong?’ But ‘we rarely ask ourselves why, 27 years into a South African democracy, 44% of people of working age cannot get a job? Why is it that 75% of 15- to 34-year-olds don’t ever get launched, meaning they never get that first, basic job opportunity?’ he asked.
A challenge to think differently
The one thing all of South Africa’s greatest business leaders have in common is that they navigate the noise. Many of us are completely transfixed by the noise – it distracts and intimidates us to a point where we become paralysed and stop thinking about the future altogether. ‘That is the pervasive South African story at the moment, and I want to challenge you to think differently,’ said Bruce.
How do we ‘think differently’? In addition to paying attention and double-checking facts, we must force ourselves to take a step back and zoom out just a little bit so that we can see the bigger picture – the picture of opportunity that South Africa presents.
Bruce encouraged delegates to be optimists because, in addition to being able to navigate the noise, optimism is a critical element that people who have built billion-dollar businesses out of South Africa have in common.
What is optimism?
Optimism comes down to whether you think you can influence the future for the better. Optimism is asking yourself if you can create a business, enterprise or solution that will make the future better than the present.
Bruce used Capitec Bank as an example: ‘We see great businesses created in South Africa, businesses we didn’t initially think were necessary. In the year 2000, Capitec had no reason to exist: there were enough big banks and there were millions of people who were considered to be ‘unbankable’ by the existing banks at the time. Nobody would give people without jobs bank accounts, and it wasn’t deemed a necessity.’
‘The founders of Capitec saw the opportunity and today they are the biggest retail bank in South Africa,’ explained Bruce.
The future is terrifying, but if you allow yourself to constantly get overwhelmed by fear and negativity, you will stop thinking for yourself and you will be unable to think about opportunities to better the future. In the words of the great statistician and medical doctor Hans Rosling, ‘You cannot make decisions when your mind is clouded by fear.’
Grabbing the opportunity in a crisis
‘We always think things are worse than they are.’ Bruce used the example of First Rand Group in 1987 to illustrate this point: ‘If you were to ask one of the founders of First Rand Group if 1987 (the year when South Africa defaulted on its debts, the rand dropped significantly and Barclays disinvested) was the hardest year ever, they would probably say no. You would be left baffled, but they would explain that, though it was a hard year, they managed to buy FNB and Southern Life as a package at a fraction of what they should have paid for it because nobody else wanted it. As a result, they have created an extremely valuable, globally relevant business. In the crisis of that moment, smart people looked through the crisis and found the opportunity.’
Optimist, pessimist, realist vs opportunist
As the great Thomas Edison said, ‘opportunity is missed by everyone because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.’
‘This fix is not easy. But the fact that it’s hard means you’ll have less competition in whatever it is that you choose to do as part of the fix – whatever business ideas and solutions you come up with, so use the opportunity, Bruce concluded.’
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