BNC#6: Entrepreneurial giant Christo Wiese urges perspective, rationality

In his keynote address to the BizNews Conference, leading South African entrepreneur Christo Wiese drew on the famous statement made almost a century back by then Prime Minister Jan Smuts who described SA as a country where things are never as good as they should be, but never as bad as they could be. In this inspirational address, the man who built Shoprite and Pep into massive corporations offers perspective on where SA sits in a troubled world, concluding that the depressing narrative is overblown.

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An edited transcript of Christo Wiese’s keynote address at BNC#6 in Hermanus ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Thank you, distinguished guests. Just to put things in a little bit of perspective about Alec’s reference to your most infamous resident here in Hermanus [Markus Jooste]. Shortly thereafter, I had to address a meeting at my old school, Paarl Boys High, and I could sense that people were feeling very sorry for me. And I said, look, I want to tell you a story about the Northwest Cape, where I come from.

A very wealthy farmer who moved from the Boland, bought a farm there, and the bank manager noticed that he didn’t have a bank account. So he went to him to ask him to open a bank account. And the old farmer said to the bank manager, “No. I want to point out to you that we van der Merwes don’t want anybody to know anything about our financial affairs, only the family.”

He says, “So most of the money my children know about. But, children can be a bit irresponsible, so there’s a certain portion of the money that only my wife and I know about. But, you know, I’ve learned that wives can sometimes be irresponsible. So then there’s another batch of money that only the dear Lord and I know of.” And then he stops and he says, “And then there’s another little lot.” 

So Alec, thank you for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you. I do not intend to make a long speech, and in any event I only have 20 minutes. But for two reasons not a long speech, I hope. The first reason is that we are entering an election, and we will all be inundated with endless speeches. And secondly, I do not have a great deal of wisdom to impart. After a few personal observations and then engaging in a question and answer session in an attempt to help each other perhaps make more sense of the world we live in. 

First, the very long-term picture. In a recent speech at the World Economic Forum, the president of Argentina made the point that for 800 years, from the year 1000 A.D. to the mid-nineteenth century, there was virtually no growth in the per capita GDP worldwide annually. Then the miracle of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism spurred great economic growth, increasing the per capita GDP growth rate from 0.02% per annum to 0.66% per annum at the end of the 19th century, which meant it would take 107 years to achieve a two-fold increase in per capita GDP. In the 1950s, the growth rate rises to 1.36% annually, meaning that the per capita GDP doubles in 66 years in the period. If we consider the period from 2000 to the present, we see that we can now double our per capita GDP in only 23 years. And yet, after 200 years, we see that democracy and capitalism are under attack even in the countries of origin, which I suppose only illustrates how difficult it is for humankind to learn, and how easy to forget. 

At the beginning of the 19th century, about 70% of the world’s GDP was produced in the East for the next 200 years. The West rose to a similar dominant position, in his book The West and the Rest, Neil Ferguson points out how this pendulum is swinging back. Although one must always remember what the well-known American economist Jake Goldsmith said, and I quote, ‘The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.’ Interesting in this regard are the current demographic projections. The world’s foremost demographers predict the world population by the end of the 21st century will be 11 billion people, of which 85% will live in Africa and in the East. Africa will then have a population of between 4 and 4.5 billion people. The question then arises how much will the remaining 15% really matter? Add to these developments the exponential technological advancements, and it is clear that the world is rapidly becoming a very different place, a fundamentally different place. Nowhere is this clearer than what Douglas Murray describes in his book The Strange Death of Europe, in which he points out the huge risks Europe is facing due to mass migration. 

Like all countries in an increasingly interconnected world. We in South Africa cannot avoid the consequences of these megatrends, and we must chart our way forward. Fully cognizant of these trends and of our own complexities. I am sure all of us are often asked, what do you think of South Africa now? My stock answer is: compared to what? 

As I indicated before, many people agree with Murray’s bleak prognosis for Europe. On the other hand, many analysts suggest that the USA is involved in a low-level civil war, with Democrats and Republicans seeing each other as enemies and not as opponents. What is therefore clear is that the challenges we face in South Africa do not make us the only country where one can easily despair of the future. In charting our way forward, we can perhaps find good guidance in a speech made by Professor Chris Brown, former vice-chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch. He suggested that in drawing that chart, we should ask ourselves four questions. Firstly, where do we come from? Secondly, where are we now? Thirdly, where do we want to get to? And fourthly, how do we get there? 

In answer to the first question, he suggested that in South Africa we come from a world of either-or. Where you were either white or black. One spoke either Afrikaans or English. You were either part of the ruling elite or part of the disenfranchised majority. Where are we today? We live in a world of and. We are black and white. We speak Afrikaans and English and another nine official languages as well. And every eligible South African is entitled to vote. 

We live in a functioning democracy. Interesting to note in this regard is that we currently have 41 million eligible voters, of which 24 million are registered to vote. But it is expected that only 17 million will actually cast their ballots. That means if the ANC does get 50%, the government would have got the votes of only eight and a half million South Africans in a country of 60 million plus people. 

We live in a country that has not been well managed by the current government. To put it mildly, over the last decade and a half that is generally accepted, and even the ANC admits that it has made serious mistakes in its policies and in the implementation of it all to such an extent that many people, locally and abroad, suggest that we are showing signs of a failing state. I submit that this is the wrong conclusion without whitewashing the many costly mistakes of the ANC government. 

There are trends in South Africa that clearly illustrate that we are not inevitably headed to become another African failed state. Let me point out only five and there are many others. Number one, according to Stats South Africa, our people today are living longer. In 2002, people were living until around 55 years of age. Today it is 63 years. Now, I submit that if everything in the country was that terrible, this outcome would not have been possible.

The second place: SARS continues, much to some of our dismay, to bring more taxpayers into the net from 2007 to 2021. Individual taxpayers increased from 4.8 million to 24 million. Company taxpayers increased from 1.2 to 3.1 million.

The third place: and this may surprise many of us, our budget deficit in 2023, at 4.9%, was the same as in 1994.

In the fourth place: the number of nurses has increased to the extent that the ratio of nurses to people improved from 340 people to less than 200.

In the fifth place: there is evidence of the health of our democracy. According to a recent column by Tony Leon, we see optics which very few developing world democracies could match. He cites as an example the fact that the DA recently gathered 15,000 supporters right in front of the seat of state authority, the Union Buildings in Pretoria. No troops dispersed the event. No ANC supporters disrupted the rally where anti-ANC rhetoric was mandatory. And the DA received, courtesy of SABC TV, three hours of rolling coverage of the DA’s manifesto launch. These are good signs. The sadness is, of course, that as a country we could do so much better. 

Shortly after this event, there was a Constitutional Court order mandating the ANC to hand over to the DA all its records on Cadre deployment. So whatever else might ail the judiciary, state interference is not one of its ills.

In answer to the third question. Where do we want to be? In one word, we want to be a rainbow nation where all our people can live in harmony, peace, and prosperity, and thereby amending General Smuts’s description of South Africa as a country where things are never as good as they should be, but never as bad as they could be. 

Finally, how do we get there? Firstly, I submit that we accept that we are all African. No matter the colour of our skin. We love our land, and the majority of our people are in tune with its unique rhythms. Therefore, we should see each other as political opponents and not as enemies. 

If I may digress to a local issue for the moment. Those of you who live in Hermanus will be aware that there’s a big battle raging because of the [Hermanus] Cliff Path. I got permission last night from one of the protagonists, Rob Hersov, that after thought, discussion, and debate, he has decided to drop his participation in the threatened injunction or indictment. Which shows what can be done if we converse with each other in a particular manner. 

At the conclusion of every discussion as to where we are today and how we are going to make South Africa the country it can and should be, we always focus on all the wonderful advantages that we enjoy: our abundance of natural resources, our youthful population, our vibrant civil society, our independent media, etc. 

So what should we do? In my view, we should look at our challenges or problems less superficially. And let me give one example. The whole debate about Cadre deployment. The Constitutional Court had ruled that Cadre deployment is not unconstitutional. And I think around the world and also in our own history, Cadre deployment was accepted. The difficulty is how it should be analysed. It’s not Cadre deployment per se that is a problem, it is how it is done. That is the problem. And maybe if we engage differently, we can get that situation to improve. 

Secondly, we should focus on trying to reach a consensus on an improved electoral system such as Michael Louis and his cohorts have just achieved that we will have, for the first time, independent candidates on the ballot this year, because part of what is wrong, in my view, in South Africa, is the electoral system. How people get elected to Parliament. And part of the consequence of that is with the strong party boss influence, that many people have talent and people who can make a huge difference do not want to engage in politics. It’s not an attractive option. 

We can deal with that in more detail if there’s a question in that regard. 

And for those of us who fear South Africa becoming a failed state, we should consider all the differences between us and those failed states primarily in Africa. One of the most important differences in our favour is our strong private sector. We all know that the private sector, not only here but all over the world, can do things that the government simply cannot do. There are now hopeful signs that the government is beginning to accept that the private sector can help tremendously to solve some of our most pressing problems.

Finally, we should accept that the majority of South Africans are good people and that our communities can be involved in creating solutions. And here I want to mention but one example, the Free Market Foundation calculated that in South Africa, there are between 7 and 11 million households where people own the structure in which they live, but they do not own the land. They started an initiative with private donors and arranged for title deeds to be issued and handed to some of these people. Regrettably, after ten years, I was told recently that only 10,000 [12,000] of these title deeds had been handed over and at the really negligible cost of, when it started of R2000 title deed. 

Now, I always shock people with I say that in one respect, I fully agree with Julius Malema when he says that what white people do not understand is that black people also want to be owners. Now here is a simple method. At a relatively modest cost, we can make owners of 7 to 11 million additional South Africans. What a change that will make to our country. If one takes into account the voting percentage which I mentioned, there are clearly enough South Africans who can be inspired and who will be prepared to fight to make South Africa the country we all want. 

So as these radicals constitute the worst nightmare for those of us who are well-meaning, it is my view that if that mission gets through, we will be their worst nightmare.

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