“The dream of changing the whole country into a better place for everyone has disappeared," says Wouter van Zijl, a Vrye Weekblad reader and personal friend for almost 40 years.
He is a Namibian who, with independence, saw the opportunity to make a difference by investing confidently in an uncertain democracy. He created jobs for 100 people amid an ocean of unemployment. He offers data storage courses to qualified unemployed individuals who urgently need any experience to catch the eye on their CVs.
His solution is “letting the sea of chaos make room for islands of excellence” when “poverty, unemployment, corruption and weak governance can no longer be solved by any individual with positive intentions".
Our reality is in business rescue
Some of our contemporaries have emigrated to Perth, Seattle or Christchurch. Those who remain have only two choices: Do what you do well in your immediate surroundings and create prosperity rather than employment, or stare hopelessly into the abyss of decay, longing for a better life for all. The idea of master projects falls within the domain of the state, and the government does not give the state a fair chance to do what needs to be done.
The reality is that most of us cannot escape the direness of the situation. Those who could, and who wanted to seek the unfamiliar, have already passed through customs. The rest of our reality is in business rescue. The youth with scarce skills can seek refuge elsewhere, but most of us — despite our privilege and relative prosperity — are prisoners of an unpredictable economic reality at the southern tip of Africa.
There are not enough of these islands of excellence to address South Africa's political and economic problems.
Mike Schüssler says that even if the economy grows at 5% or 6% a year, half of all current 19-year-olds will probably never find formal sector employment in their lifetime. That is how dire the forecast is after two decades of state capture and opportunistic economic policies. It speaks to the futility of swimming against the tide in a country where ideology and fabricated identities still determine our foreign policy and our understanding of the common good.
A two-tone shirt and a plan
Not all white conservatives or traditional Afrikaners wanted to flee with the turn of the 1990s. In Pretoria, I know a man with a two-tone shirt and a hunting rifle who writes software for hundreds of overseas and local companies. He provides scholarships to black students with potential but little money. He tells alarming stories of crime in his industry and bureaucratic undermining by government officials. The abuse of empowerment and the decay of logistics and infrastructure are enormous.
His way of dealing with it is through simple philosophy: “Piet, adaptability is the keyword — and then you just don't deviate from your plans." He is amazed that anyone considers leaving this country and continent.
Among white South Africans, it is now a standard starting point that those who do not have the ability to leave should at least equip their offspring with the skills to do so. But there are numerous examples of white South Africans who do not buy into the fight-or-flight scenario. The man with a fondness for astonishingly ugly shirts is one of them.
Another is a butterball Afrikaner in Stellenbosch who operates a company that develops software for, among others, Nasa and BMW. The intellectual capital of his business is not constrained by the shortcomings of our democracy or the constraints of our economy.
More than 350 skilled nerds — engineers and data scientists — find refuge in his offices, and half of his companies create value and prosperity locally and internationally. The 350 people working there are by no means an indication of the real impact of his innovative approach.
Dawie Roodt tells me bluntly that companies that are established with the purpose of creating jobs will not truly escape the costs of doing business in South Africa; the objective should be to create prosperity.
Ownership in agriculture
In Ceres, a lawyer named Gerrit van Vuuren decided to focus on land reform that provides black and brown farmers with the opportunity to escape the stigma of being “emerging" farmers. The question of why the state does not trust black farmers with ownership plagued him until he devised a model that could reconcile the seemingly incompatible interests of ownership and black agriculture.
With the mega farmers of the Du Toit group and Rossouw Celliers from Laastedrif, among others, Partners in Agri Land Solutions creates islands of excellence for these farmers in collaboration with established commercial farmers who describe the process as “the right thing to do", even if it does not necessarily benefit their own operations.
Van Vuuren realised that ownership is a value system that can unlock social capital and root black farmers in a market economy capable of transferring prosperity across generations. They not only gain ownership of their land but a stake in an agricultural value chain without the stigma of being “emerging". Many black farmers are disheartened by this label; ownership is the beginning of being established. Each farmer must succeed on their own island, but ultimately, they connect to the complex value chain of food security.
While discussing Vrye Weekblad readers, Evert de Ruiter is an astonishingly well-read and lateral thinker who works for a state-owned enterprise, and sometimes he invites me for coffee on Sundays when the rest of Johannesburg is still in bed and cursing the hadedas. For him, the islands of excellence are a valid argument, but the inflammatory binding material that connects these islands to each other is even more important.
If Wouter van Zijl, the two-tone hunter from Pretoria, and Gerrit van Vuuren do not create prosperity with the aim of serving the common good, we are doomed. The common good is defined by a social value system that provides a common focus to diverse interests.
Common aspirations and values
These islands dare not exist in defiance of a common aspiration. And the constitution of this country is the ultimate measure against which the binding material between successful models of prosperity must be evaluated.
Even more importantly, the common good must be embedded in a value system. Freedom of the individual; pursuit of progress; a sceptical attitude towards the monopolisation of power; preservation and protection of families and/or households; aversion to violence as a method of competition; ownership of infrastructure that serves the common good; equality in the context of rights and privileges, as well as mutual compassion; these values are the path to sustainability and progress, and they replace the need for compromises between competitors and opponents. It is a loose bond (value system) that honours diversity rather than undermining it.
In such a context, meaningful conversations can be had on how to manage diversity rather than stifling racism at its inception. A mindset that contemplates progress can be nurtured, rather than the necessity to ignite fires against crime and corruption. Issues regarding the scope of healthcare and the state's obligation towards educational institutions become the primary concerns, rather than social grants and pit latrines. And political parties can formulate policies and manifestos based on the benefits of immigration rather than xenophobia.
The protection of language, religion, ideology or ethnicity are destructive interests with a centrifugal momentum. These are not concepts based on a common value system. They are identities with a right to exist but probably mean nothing to the common good. They glorify self-interest and pit communities against each other. Ultimately, they are glorified as a test of tolerance rather than an indication of unity.
The promotion of unrelated particular interests more often results in a small group of winners and a mass of losers. The idea of secession from the Cape is nonsensical, and the notion that Orania can be a prototype for self-determination is fallacious. Without the cohesive force of the common good, the likelihood of a civil war becomes an unavoidable scenario.
Peace that passes understanding
I was born between the Namib and the Kalahari in Keetmanshoop and grew up in the land that God created in a moment of anger. Many of us, like me, see no opportunity for existence away from Southern Africa's embrace. The Kalahari, the Karoo, the Bushveld and the Namib are who we are. I am unsure about the Free State.
After a recent visit to Turkey, I landed in Johannesburg at 4am. Eight hours later, I traversed the green Kalahari with my Jimny and reached the Namib.
At dusk, I parked my vehicle near the waves where the bone-dry Omaruru River merges with the Atlantic Ocean. It's the kind of moment that brings believers closer to their creator and sceptics like me closer to our final heartbeat. These days, the awareness of my transience is much more relevant as I walk in the footsteps of my youth.
But for now, I and all of us live in greater peace with Africa than we realise – and, in fact, this continent is at peace with us as well. As long as our plans don't run out and we don't give up on each other.
♦ VWB ♦
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