Mqamelo: Lessons from a mountain hike. Switzerland, SA – what’s to learn?

LONDON — Meet a rare talent. And another example of the abundance of human capital which exists on the southern tip of the African continent. Mthata-born Rebecca Mqamelo is an astonishingly proficient wordsmith for one so young. Her writing reflects a clarity of thought which suggests we’ll be hearing a great deal more about her in years to come, Hopefully as contributions to her homeland. As SA’s “Matric of the Year” for 2016 has opted to pursue her studies in California, taking a leaf, perhaps, from the book written by Pretoria-born Elon Rive Musk. Here’s hoping Rebecca finds the time to share more of her experiences with us as she follows her exciting journey. – Alec Hogg

By Rebecca Mqamelo*

Switzerland – the world’s most stable economy and a beacon of effective democracy. This tiny nation nestled in Central Europe has a population of roughly eight million people and a national identity synonymous with punctuality, quality and reliability.

Rebecca Mqamelo

Is it completely outrageous to compare Switzerland with South Africa, and try to learn from the comparison? While clambering through the Swiss Alps on my post matric “gap year”, I found myself in the company of people learned in both Swiss history and South African politics – an unlikely troupe comprising one Swiss entrepreneur and three South Africans – an advocate, an ex-freedom fighter and a business consultant. This is what they had to say about the trajectories of the two nations, and the lessons we can learn from each other.

The entrepreneur: “What many people don’t know is that for centuries, Switzerland found itself in the backwaters of Europe. It is a landlocked nation where mountains and lakes account for two thirds of available space, and its natural resources don’t get much more exciting than wood and water. Throughout our history, we have been overrun by stronger armies from all directions on their march through the Alpine passes, not to mention waves of internal conflict: aristocratic cities against peasant farmers; Protestants against Catholics, or canton against canton (a canton is something like a province – we have 26). During the nineteenth century, Switzerland was so ravaged by poverty, hunger and poor job prospects that the government bought its own people one-way tickets to America. In 1918 one sixth of the population lived below the poverty line. But today Switzerland is one of the most successful countries in the world.”

What made the change possible?

The entrepreneur: “Our harsh terrain and equally harsh history have meant that people have been forced to plan ahead. Before the development of our rail and road infrastructure, we were cut off from trade routes and had little to offer the rest of Europe. We learned to survive by importing raw materials, making something unique, and selling it at a high price to cover the crippling transport costs and labour-intensive work. Later we were forced to focus on services. Today about 74% of the GDP is generated by the service sector and 25% by industry. The agricultural sector contributes less than 1%.

The strength of our economy lies in the fact that 99% of Swiss firms are highly efficient small- and medium-sized enterprises. Small companies rely heavily on local talent, and 40% of them support our vocational education and training (VET) system – providing around 230 000 internships per year. This creates a workforce that is dynamic, professional and market-responsive.

Rebecca Mqamelo takes a breather, taking in the picturesque views of the Switzerland outdoors.

How does South Africa compare?

The business consultant: Unfortunately, South Africa is ranked the most unequal society in the world, where the richest 20% consume 61% of our resources and the poorest 20% consume 4.5%. Unemployment stands just shy of 27%, and we’ve officially moved into recession.

However, our sophisticated financial markets, and respect for property rights and the rule of law keep us attractive to investors. Lately this attraction has suffered a blow, with our political scandals and seeming indifference to their effect on our economy. One delegate at this year’s World Economic forum summed it up quite well when he attributed this hesitancy to invest to ‘first world returns with third world risks’.

There are certain fundamentals that we need to get right. I believe the first is tackling the issue of skilled employment, which has a lot to do with our education system.”

Flag map of South Africa

The ex-freedom fighter: “South Africa’s education system is a shambles. What we’re missing is relevant education that is responsive to the needs of the country. It is not uncommon to see people standing on the side of the road clutching university certificates. The root of unemployment is not only a lack of jobs; a key underlying issue is the lack of a skilled workforce. The youth now find themselves poorly educated with little opportunity to gain practical experience, and unfortunately FET colleges are not as effective as they could be. These challenges will only be amplified in the coming years due to the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” which will be characterised by fast-paced technological progress.”

What makes Switzerland’s education system so successful?

The entrepreneur: “Switzerland integrates vocational education and training (VET) into its schooling system. Almost two thirds of people choose vocational training over university study, because the emphasis is on what one can offer the job market, not on having a fancy degree behind your name. This ensures that people entering the job market are skilled and experienced from the get go. In terms of what has made Switzerland so successful, I would put our vocational training second only to our system of direct democracy.”

On governance: “With almost 3,000 autonomous municipalities and 26 sovereign cantons, Switzerland is a thriving model of direct democracy.

A sophisticated system of checks and balances gives citizens the right to put any law decided by their representatives to a general vote. For this to happen, members of the public need to gather 50 000 signatures within 100 days of the publication of a new law. They can also propose almost any constitutional amendment they wish – all they have to do is gather a minimum of 100 000 signatures within 18 months. Surprisingly, the parts of the country where the people are most involved in politics have been shown to have better public services and stronger economies. The government in Switzerland is not delivering for the people, but with them, because in a very real way, the people are the government.”

The advocate: “South Africa, on the other hand, is struggling under the burden of a democracy hijacked by the elite – or, to be more apt, a democracy that has given over to forces which find their origin in Uttar Pradesh, India.

People are only just beginning to wake up and realise that a total system reform is in order. Right now, politicians are more accountable to their political parties than to the people they are meant to serve. We need a mixed system, as recommended by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform, which proposed that at least half of the 400 members of parliament be directly elected by their constituencies.”

South African born Rebecca Mqamelo hiking through the Switzerland mountainside.

What of culture?

The entrepreneur: Switzerland is a total melting pot of cultures, languages and beliefs. We view ourselves as held together by ‘force of will’, or mutual interest, as opposed to a shared culture or history. We have an immigrant population of 25%. The unifying factor across these differences and the basis of our national identity, is a common appreciation of political values such as direct democracy, neutrality and federalism. We see our multiculturalism as a desirable enrichment and so far, we’ve fared better than most in integrating large numbers of immigrants over a long time – if success is measured in terms of maintaining economic prosperity and social cohesion.”

The ex-freedom fighter: “In South Africa our spirit of ubuntu seems more a national PR token than a perceptible ethic that results in tangible socio-economic transformation. The failure of countless community-based initiatives lies in the simple fact that people are more comfortable working for someone else than working together and for themselves. We can appreciate government initiatives such as the grant system, but as of yet we have no sustainable plan to eradicate absolute poverty. All this makes for a diminished sense of self-esteem, an inflated sense of entitlement, and little incentive to work hard and become self-sufficient.

Thus, the deciding factor when comparing South Africa and Switzerland can be reduced to one word: attitude. While Switzerland is known for its exemplary work ethic, South Africans are generally reluctant to get down and dirty, to push their own boundaries and make things happen for themselves.

Our history of racial oppression has scarred us irrevocably – but compare us to Germany or Japan, which also had their share of trauma and strife. A quarter of Japan’s national wealth evaporated during World War Two, yet by 1968, it was the second largest economy in the world, after the USA. Germany’s past will forever linger in its conscience like a dark unwanted shadow, but today it is a leading economic and political power. A scarred and traumatised past does not have to shape a country forever.”

Flag map of Switzerland

As a young expat who hopes to remain engaged with her home country, I took away three stark pointers for South Africa: Switzerland’s excellence is founded on a relevant education, an electoral system that works, and an overall attitude that values work and innovation.

South Africa is lagging behind in all three areas – but there is hope. I believe effective change is accelerated by a top-down process that begins with good leadership, and not just in government, but in the private sector too. The recent involvement of private companies in abetting state capture in this country just shows that we can not only wag our fingers at politicians, but must hold all South Africans accountable.

The Swiss national motto is “One for all and all for one.” It speaks of mutual self-interest, the kind that Mandela alluded to when he said “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” We clearly have a lot to learn from nations that, at least in some sense, have got it right.

  • Rebecca Mqamelo is an Mthatha-born South African who is fresh out of high school and awaits to begin her first year of university at Minerva in San Francisco. She is a national debating champion, international public speaker and winner of the precocious title “Matric of the Year 2016”. Currently she kills time by writing, jogging and blogging. Her idea of fun is learning Russian and German, and watching Kazakh films.