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How can we save South Africa’s ship from sinking?

How can we save South Africas ship from sinking

How can we save South Africa’s ship from sinking?  

In the heydays of maritime exploration and trade, the adage, “Like rats deserting a sinking ship” was popular – especially among the highly superstitious sailors who risked their lives traversing seas and oceans that were still largely unexplored.

I can’t for a minute claim to be any kind of expert in rodent behaviour, but apparently, the popular opinion of the day was that rats have an innate ability to sense impending disaster and would waste no time jumping ship if they felt it was in danger of sinking.

Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, many people are now applying this centuries-old saying to present-day South Africa, about the worrying number of people leaving the country in search of safer, less corrupt, and undeniably better-powered shores.

The problem is, however, that while the imagery of the saying is appropriate, it’s not mere “rats” who are leaving. We are haemorrhaging skilled professionals at a worrying pace.

As Antonio Garcia Martinez, author of Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley said, “It’s not the rats who first abandon a sinking ship. It’s the crew members who know how to swim.”

Wits Professor William Gumede told Business Day TV that the exodus of qualified professionals is particularly damaging because the skills leaving the country are the same skills we desperately need at home.

“When you strip a country of these key people, it seriously undermines it from an economic growth perspective,” he said.

You also strip it of desperately needed tax dollars, without which our government surely has no hope of ever implementing the changes we so desperately need.

Data from the South African Revenue Service (SARS) shows that over the past five years, more than 40,500 taxpayers have ended their tax residency in South Africa. Who knows how many billions in lost tax that equates to?

Every year we lose hundreds of desperately needed healthcare workers, teachers, accountants and other professionals. More recently, vets have started to join the Brain Drain – to the tune of around 150 every year.

At between 60 and 70 vets per million people, South Africa is already well below the international average of between 200 to 400 per million. We cannot sustain further losses without triggering real fears around maintaining livestock health. This in turn sparks concerns over our very food safety and security.

Tony Healy, a labour consultant, believes most skilled people leave South Africa because of crime, security, corruption, an incompetent government, and a deteriorating outlook for the country.

Gumede added another reason: because they don’t believe the ruling party can turn the country around.

“Even though most people decide to leave the country unwillingly, they have no trust that the problems South Africa faces will be resolved,” he said.

And therein lies the rub.

Tens of thousands of people have given up hope that our beautiful country is ever again going to function as it should.

And if we’re all completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all been down that thought path at some stage.

Years of corruption, rampant crime and a complete lack of infrastructural maintenance have led us here. It’s a mess, but one almost entirely of our own making.

For too long, the honest hardworking people of South Africa have been badly let down by the very people they trusted to lift them.

When Cyril Ramaphosa became president in 2018, South Africa’s business leaders were excited to see a fellow businessman at the helm. A respected, educated and highly astute man who would, we hoped, apply sound, business tactics to the governance of our country.

Five years later, these same leaders have realised that the job President Ramaphosa had been tasked with was far greater than anyone had perhaps initially appreciated.

And they’re naturally concerned about the future.

So concerned that some of South Africa’s most influential corporate CEOs recently met with President Ramaphosa and other stakeholders in government to try and find ways to fix the structural weaknesses in our country before they fail.

In what has been described in the media as “an unprecedented move”, business leaders including Jannie Durand, CEO of Remgro, Neal Froneman, Sibanye Stillwater CEO, Sasol CEO Fleetwood Grobler, Andrew Kirby, CEO, of Toyota South Africa Motors, and Paul Hanratty, CEO of Sanlam, committed to contributing considerable skills and resources to help save our crisis-hit country.

Three immediate priority interventions were agreed to:

  1. Energy
  2. Transport and logistics
  3. Crime and corruption.

“The work will be directed through the government-led National Energy Crisis Committee (NECOM), National Logistics Crisis Committee (NLCC), and Joint Initiative to Fight Crime and Corruption (JICC), and overseen by a Joint Strategic Operations Committee,” a statement from the presidency said.

“This initiative will make a real and marked difference in rebuilding our economy and setting it on a path of sustained inclusive growth,” said President Ramaphosa.

He knows how to make the right noises, as does our President, but this time, backed with the considerable financial muscle and business expertise of some of our biggest corporate brains, maybe it will turn out to be so much more than just noise.

After all, we’ve seen it done in other countries.

I’ve spoken before about Singapore, but it’s worth mentioning again because it is such an inspiring story of how one man turned an entire country around.

Before it achieved independence from Great Britain in 1959, Singapore was plagued with rampant corruption fuelled by inadequate laws, wide pay gaps between the private and public sectors, a lack of interest and commitment by law enforcement, and insufficient manpower in its anti-corruption agencies.

But when Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister in 1959, he made it a priority to tackle and stamp out the systemic corruption that led to almost unchecked crime in the city. It took a huge feat of political will to do so, but he achieved what many believed simply wasn’t possible.

His methods were simple but effective:


  1. Zero-tolerance approach to corruption.
  2. Formed the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) whose director reported directly to the Prime Minister and no one else. No one was above investigation.
  3. Every civil servant and politician was subjected to scrutiny and made to declare their income and assets.
  4. Salaries of the civil service were significantly raised to quell the temptation to indulge in corrupt activities. Today, the salaries of Singapore ministers and senior civil servants are the highest in the world.

The penalty for corruption and other crimes in Singapore was, and still is, severe – long prison sentences, total confiscation of all family-owned assets that are traceable to the crime, and mandatory death sentences for drug trafficking.

In addition, its criminal justice system deals with all cases quickly and efficiently; there are very few long, drawn-out court cases.

It just goes to show that incredible things can happen when your country is led by a man who works for the good of the people he serves. Today, Singapore consistently ranks as the least corrupt country in the whole of Asia, and the 4th least corrupt country in the world.

I’d like to share another example with you that I feel is immensely powerful – and a blueprint for how we can start bringing about change at ground level in South Africa.

Ever heard of the Broken Windows theory?

It was first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1983. It only really came into wider circulation in the 1990s, however, when New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the theory to shape their policing policies.

Essentially, it states that visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and civil disorder create an environment that encourages further crime and disorder.

Both social psychologists and police officers agree that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, the rest of the windows will soon also be broken. This is as true in wealthier neighbourhoods as in poorer ones.

The premise is that leaving a broken window unrepaired signals to the community that no one in authority cares, which means breaking more windows won’t attract attention or punishment.

When you spread this theory out in a broader perspective, it suggests that by not ignoring minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, and public drinking, you help create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness that automatically helps reduce more serious crime.

“Once you begin to deal with the small problems in neighbourhoods, you begin to empower those neighbourhoods,” says George Kelling. “People claim back their public spaces, and the store owners extend their concerns to what happens on the streets. Communities get strengthened once order is restored or maintained, and it is that dynamic that helps to prevent crime.”

I’m aware that our crime problem is far deeper and more serious than the anecdotal broken windows. Indeed, the more cynical among us may think that, despite public and media sentiment to the contrary, a few fat cats from corporate South Africa sitting around and shooting the breeze with their public sector counterparts isn’t going to help the majority of South Africans struggling with every aspect of their daily lives.

I agree that it may not make a significant difference immediately – but it’s definitely a move in the right direction, and it’s a start at fixing our many hundreds of broken windows.

Discovery CEO and BUSA vice president, Adrian Gore said that the move underscores big business’s belief in South Africa and is a firm commitment to achieving sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

“Business, working together with all partners, is ideally positioned to ensure a better future, by turning the flywheel for the benefit of all,” he said.

I’m allowing myself to feel hopeful that he’s right.