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How Personal Accountability, Not Political Parties, Will Shape The Real Future of South Africa


How Personal Accountability, Not Political Parties, Will Shape The Real Future of South Africa

If you think one second doesn’t make a difference, talk to the Comrades Marathon runner who finished the race in 12 hours and 1 second.

If you think one day doesn’t make a difference, speak to the person who’s just lost their life partner and would give anything to have just one more day with them.

On the surface, one is a small number, and yet it has exponential potential many of us don’t fully appreciate, understand or capitalise on.

This is especially true when we talk about people – and particularly when we talk about people in positions of power.

Back in 2000, the South African government, under the leadership of the late, great Nelson Mandela, found itself at the centre of a lawsuit from no fewer than 39 of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.

They were charging the government with violating price protections and a range of intellectual property rights. Why? Because our country was, at the time, fighting a massive surge in HIV/Aids cases, with close to a quarter of the population infected. Mandela’s government wanted to create more affordable antiretroviral treatments – therapies at the time cost around $1000 a month, more than a third of the average South African’s annual salary.

In December of the same year, Dr. Tadataka Yamada took over as chairman of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). He was horrified to learn that his company was one of the complainants in the lawsuit, as he believed GSK should be part of the solution to global health crises, not a contributor to them.

There were also, naturally, non-altruistic motives – the negative optics and public relations disaster being just two.

But his main argument was that GSK couldn’t conscionably make medicines that save lives, and then not allow the people whose lives needed saving to access them.

The end result of his dogged crusade was that, just 5 months later, all 39 companies dropped the lawsuit, and many also reduced the prices of their antiretroviral drugs by 90% or more.

Yamada also converted one of GSK’s major Spanish laboratories into a profit-exempt laboratory that focused only on diseases in the developing world, including malaria and tuberculosis.

His actions not only helped millions at the time, but also established the company’s main vision and mission for the future.

In 2008, Andrew Witty took over as CEO of GSK and became one of the leading spokespersons for global health in the pharmaceutical industry. He, and fellow GSK exco member Chris Viehbacher, later partnered with the Gates Foundation on global health initiatives.

Stories like this, while so inspirational and transformational, are sadly hard to find. It takes clarity of conscience and the courage to speak up, speak out and challenge the status quo. It requires taking risks, grabbing opportunities and not being afraid to tackle tough challenges. But I think mostly, it takes an unwavering sense of commitment and purpose, and a genuine desire to use your privilege to help people who aren’t as fortunate.

The encouraging thing for me, though, is that you don’t have to be a high-ranking executive in a globally powerful organisation to make a difference.

You will, I’m sure, have heard the story of the person walking along the beach, throwing stranded starfish that had washed up on the shore back into the sea. When asked, “Why do you bother? You can’t possibly make a difference to the plight of all these starfish,” the person picked one up off the sand, tossed it back into the water and said, “I made a difference to that one.”

I think it’s a wonderful illustration of the power of one. One motivated, committed person CAN always make a difference in some way. And quite often, as was the case with Dr Yamada, their actions inspire others to do the same, creating a wave of change that ends up making an even bigger difference to even more people.

In business, even a mid- or lower-level manager with the courage to use their voice to achieve their mission can make a significant difference. The secret is to never underestimate the value of an opportunity – no matter how small it may seem – to change things for the greater good.

An article I read recently in the Harvard Business review refers to this as constantly “training your ‘courage for challenging convention muscle’” so that it’s always ready whenever the chance to exercise it arises.

It’s such a refreshing change in perspective from the flood of articles we’re used to reading on the value of teamwork, how to create high-performing teams, and the impact of effective team-building on the overall performance of an organisation.

I’m not denying that effective teams are the backbone of organisational success, but when it comes to affecting real, impactful and meaningful organisational or even systemic change, individual actions are where the real magic happens.

Think, for example, about the true significance of someone describing themselves as “just a cog in the machine.” The insinuation is that they are simply one part of a greater entity.

While that may be true, it’s also worth remembering that if you were to remove that particular cog from its machine, or prevent it from operating smoothly, the entire machine could quickly come to a grinding halt.

The humble cog keeps other parts of the machine working. That’s the power of one.

So, when it comes to changing the conscience of an organisation, one person can make an incredible difference, even if it seems as though no one really cares about the principles of honesty, integrity and good corporate governance.

If nothing changes, nothing changes. Change has to start somewhere, so why not let it start with the actions of a single person?

In his landmark novel, The Power of One, South African-born Australian author Bryce Courtney wrote, “The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated.”

By focusing on individual development, leaders, mentors, coaches and managers can profoundly impact team development and, ultimately, overall organisational performance.

Georgette Zinaty wrote in an article for Forbes, “The power of one is not about being self-centred, rather it is about being socio-centric and recognising each action we take creates a reaction and impact on others, whether we realise it or not.”

Let me finish with a simple request:

That we all ask ourselves, every day, “What will I do with my Power of One today?”