by Clem Sunter

In the comfortable warmth of my sitting-room, I recently had the privilege of watching the two closely contested rugby games between the Springboks and Wales. I am looking forward to the series decider in Cape Town on Saturday. Whichever way the match goes, I cannot help feeling that the example set by the Springbok rugby team is pivotal in another context: that of ensuring a positive economic future for South Africa.

Let us look at the recent history of rugby union here first. Since 1994, the Springboks have undergone the transformation from a white to a fully non-racial team. During this process, they have won the Rugby World Cup three times – a feat only accomplished by one other nation, New Zealand. Along the way, individual heroes like Chester Williams, Victor Matfield and Siya Kolisi have inspired countless youngsters to take up the sport.

The reason is simple. The Springboks represent all that is good about South Africa. They play with vision and determination; they overcome the inevitable setbacks and injuries associated with such a physical sport; they adapt their strategy and tactics to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of opposing sides; and they exude a magnetic team spirit in backing each other up while performing their individual tasks to the maximum extent of their personal abilities.

South Africa is a good nursery

Above all, the players are chosen on merit because you cannot win international matches with a sub-optimal team. When so many people write dismal articles about this country’s failing education system and lack of opportunities for young people, it is quite something that natural selection with no racial bias has produced this diverse side of talented players who have combined into being a world-class phenomenon. South Africa is a good nursery for some activities at least.

 At the same time, one must also praise the invisible support system from schools to local clubs to provinces to national structures that work in combination behind the scenes to achieve this result. They may not get the same celebrity status, but they are as crucial to the success of the whole exercise as the performance of the players themselves. They constitute the hidden tunnel out of which the stars emerge onto the playing field. It is a shame that, in other sports like soccer, the pipeline is nowhere near as effective in producing the local talent to win international tournaments.

From the scrum of rugby to the hustle of business

The principal message of this article is that what has made rugby such a success in South Africa applies equally to that other competitive and more universal game we call business. We already have plenty of players in the second game here. I like to call them the foxes because they exhibit the same kind of agility and bravery with their money as their sporting equivalents do with their bodies.

From the entrepreneurs in the informal sector selling their products at street-corners to the well-known retail chains in every shopping mall, foxes are plying their trade in the hope of winning their particular game, however modest or large the playing field is. Their bright eyes pick up new opportunities faster than their slower-moving competitors.

 Yet, unlike the Springboks, we do not have the pipeline which allows foxes in our society to grow from scratch into something substantial. Nor do we have an encouraging environment like the passionate spectators who loudly cheer the Springboks on to victory from the stands. Quite the reverse. We have some people who strongly disapprove of the game of business from an ideological point of view and want to drown it in red tape. We have others who want to replace it altogether with non-competitive pursuits over which they exercise complete control. Little do they know that the final score is totally beyond their influence. Somehow, they feel threatened by the foxes who are the real wealth-creators for any nation.

As far as the pipeline is concerned, how many schools in this country run an entrepreneurial course alongside normal lessons and sport, in order to plant the seeds of being an enterprising fox? I ask this question because there is an inconvenient truth at the heart of life today. The nature of work has changed in this century and schools are expected to be educating pupils for the market of the future, not the past.

 No longer are governments and big business the major creator of jobs that they were in the last century. Lack of affordability and smarter technologies have massively reduced the workforce of the large employers. In all parts of the world, therefore, more and more people have to create jobs for themselves rather than apply for jobs that already exist. The Covid pandemic has intensified this trend by encouraging people to work digitally from home as opposed to going in person to the office.

An example of foxes in action

South Africa is no exception to being a victim of the collapse in the traditional job market. This is one reason why we have such an appallingly high unemployment rate of 64% for those aged 15-24 and 35% overall. By comparison, the latter unemployment figure in America and Australia is currently under 4%. They have discovered and nurtured the foxes within their borders and imported others from overseas.  And that is where the answer lies.

 Like rugby, we have to embrace business as an authentic game in which a growing proportion of the country’s population will be involved as foxes. They become the business Boks – either as individuals or in small teams. A few really enterprising foxes will make it into the medium-sized or big business category. Others will fail and have to start again on a different playing field.

I would like to provide one great illustration of South African foxes in action. At a mall near Simon’s Town in the Western Cape is a café cum restaurant at which I am a fairly frequent customer. I like the noise of families chatting at nearby tables, while the odd savant sits alone by the window peering into a laptop. The point is that each time I enter the door, the staff operate as a team similar to a game of rugby. There is a lady who welcomes me courteously by name, a man who makes the most delicious cappuccino and – when there is no load shedding – I can get the best battered fish and chips in the province. Every time they beat the opposition hands down.

Repeat Springbok model over and over again

The experience I have related gives a clue as to what a real economic revolution is all about. At grassroots level, so many South Africans forget about their differences when working towards a specific goal. Just like the rugby players, they combine their different talents to produce a winning proposition for local people and tourists, and at prices which are surprisingly cheap by international standards. Rather you build on something that is already there from the bottom up than invent something completely new.

Hence, our path to becoming a winning nation is to take a pocket of excellence like the Springboks and repeat their model again and again in the world of business – especially by getting the private sector to create a similar pipeline to rugby out of which promising young people can emerge as innovative foxes. That is how we will win the Business World Cup in years to come. Springboks and foxes have a lot in common. Now let’s blow the whistle to start the match side by side. 

Clem Sunter

15th July 2022

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