Jabu Mabuza on the scary nature of Singularity’s futuristic thinking

This special Podcast is brought to you by Barclays Africa. Telkom’s Chairman, Jabu Mabuza is known for his involvement in the telecoms industry, and he’s here at the Singularity University Conference that they’ve had in South Africa. Jabu, for me it’s been a bit like bringing Silicon Valley to Johannesburg for a few days.

Indeed, except that we’re battling to, just grasp these exponential things they’re talking about. I mean, as Peter said earlier, we’re linear. We act or think local. This requires a particular way of mind shift/mindset changes, as he called it ‘moon shots’, where you start to think globally. Exponentially in a global context, it’s a challenge. I’m too old, Alec, to ever think I would get to that point but it’s scary, what it can do. This futuristic thinking by this Singularity University, as it is scary to think what it is that you don’t understand. Scary to think what the world would look like if you cannot participate in it, so I’m coming out here, with my head spinning.

I think that’s logical that when one is exposed to this kind of thing, as we have been in the last day or so. That it is a little bit of a mind numbing experience but on the other hand, if you consider the opportunities for South Africa, Africa as a Continent to leapfrog, because if you don’t have…  We’re not stuck in the mud like so many of these other countries are. That was a good upside point that came through for me.

Indeed, the little I saw on this biological, the medical tele-medicine side. For a country like ours, where there are very few medical and health facilities for the majority of our people. To be in a position you can have a diagnosis-taking place remotely, giving the long distances that people would have to travel between where the case is to where the nearest healthcare facility is. It just is mindboggling. I was sitting there actually thinking that the audience that these people should be addressing would be the incoming NU National Planning Commissioners because you have to think not about today. You have to think about what’s going to happen in three years’ time, but you’ve got, as they were saying, you’ve got to think about how to interrupt yourself, but also how to interrupt your competitors, but trust it. If you’re not doing it, somebody is interrupting you.

That’s brilliantly put because in 2010, we did well with the FIFA World Cup, and then we forgot to have a Plan B. What happened afterwards? We haven’t really capitalised on the experiences that so many people had of this country, at that time.

Exactly, and we maybe steering a bit out of course on this, I mean we’ve done all this. I was Chairman of South African Tourism, at that time. I remember our messaging was the World Cup gives us a big billboard to tell the world or to show the world what South Africa can offer. Three years down the line, we are looking for reasons why people should not come to South Africa. I’m sure there are reasons why we’ve got to improve our porous borders. There are reasons we need to up our immigration, but the things we’re putting in the… The spanners we’re throwing at the wheels of tourism, I would hate to be the Minister of Finance that has to grapple with the consequences of what would happen to tourism with this unabridged birth certificate requirements that are kicking in on the 1st June.

Extraordinary, but here we are, looking at exponential organisations and somewhere that I’m sure resonated with you is what is happening in the taxi industry, with Uber transforming that. You formerly were a taxi driver. That’s your background. 

I still have the passion. I still feel for the industry and, you know, my biggest regret is the industry was perhaps one of those things that came 30 years ahead of their time and unfortunately, in the process got caught up in all sorts of things that we should not have done. Uber is actually, just revolutionising what we’re doing. They are eating our lunch. I was also startled to hear, in my just recent past environment, of the hotel business that Airbnb is now the second largest hotel group in the world, without owning one bed, so it’s not owning stuff. It’s experiencing stuff. It’s how Alec can say, “I don’t need to have these problems about drivers striking or cars not turning up but I can use cars,” so the Uber thing is quite revolutionary.

No, of course Airbnb, your former business, Tsogo Sun, now with Uber – your previous business to that in taxis…

It looks like everything that I’ve been involved in, is not going to be there for long.

So telecoms…

No, even telecoms, what they are saying about where we need to be, our fixed voice legacy type challenges we’re having. Unless we can, the challenges, Telkom needs to have almost two types of businesses. It has to have a business that maintains the current dialing one, and a management team that is thinking about the future, and the future that they think of is not the one of next week. It’s the one of three years’ time, when they might not necessarily be there themselves. It’s quite challenging, but yes…

Would you send your team to Singularity University to go and learn from these guys?

I actually was thinking about it, also some of the businesses that I am invested in, within its sphere. Sitting there just thinking what can a Babcock start to think about an Eskom that does not use coal fire turbines, and how do you position yourself when you don’t use coal. Are you ready for that, as a company or are you just going to disappear? What you are saying, Peter was also scary. That 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies will not exist in the next ten years. Now, that is scary. If the biggest are not going to be there, what’s going to happen to the smallest?

How do you play this? Obviously, there’s been a massive amount of information that you have to absorb, and you’re going to spend some time thinking about it but just a gut feel. How would you play?

Look, I guess the natural reaction of a linear, local person (like me), is to shut because there’s information over supply but also, the fear of not being part of the change that is going to happen. It does, sort of, galvanise you to say ‘I need to reflect and reflect very fast about this’.

And your team as well – your strategy team.

Exactly, I’ve got to share it with them and say, “Guys, I think you need to make contact with these people and let them… I’m sure if they were to tailor make it, this Brett Templeton, when he talks about where telecoms and networks are going. I think a company like Telkom can benefit a lot from this.

Isn’t it good though, that they’ve come to South Africa? They’ve opened a window for us to examine what’s happening, in a world that many people are confused about.

I think we need to be expressing our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Barclays. Firstly, for bringing this to these Chief Executives, and also for inviting the likes of me that I can’t do much about it, is just my own inabilities but it’s something that is profound.

Jabu, you’re an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs, always adapt and adjust.  I’m sure we’re going to see some interesting stuff from Telkom on this one.

I’m thinking of drones and vacuum cleaners to mop up my bedroom and check the DNA of who was there. There are some scary things, but it was great, Alec.

Jabu Mabuza is the Chairman of Telkom.

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