Clem Sunter backs GG Alcock, applauds township entrepreneurs, tells Malema they’re lighting a path to true economic freedom

Clem Sunter is in a league of his own. The former head of Anglo’s Gold and Uranium division (when it was the world’s #1), the Oxford-educated futurist and prolific best-selling author is passionate about encouraging entrepreneurship. Particularly those resilient beings who overcame incredible odds by operating successfully in South African townships, a highly competitive, under-researched and under-supported sector. Sunter has little time for State-imposed schemes that waste taxpayer money on favouring the creation of ‘businesses’ by the politically connected. Much better, he says, for the government to recognise a veritable army of informal sector entrepreneurs building businesses and creating jobs where meritocracy rules. In this interview with Alec Hogg, Sunter lauds the insights of recent BizNews interviewee GG Alcock – suggesting his voice is the one that should be heard above those of the many empty vessels who ignore the township economy and thus have little feel for what’s really happening in South Africa. – Alec Hogg

Clem Sunter on the really quality entrepreneurs in the township who aren’t recognised

What came out yesterday when I listened to the interview with GG Alcock was that there is this incredible economy. It’s there and it’s actually flourishing. And we’ve got to recognise it and say, how can we build on that economy? You know, one of the points I make about South Africa is that if you look at this century, we haven’t done badly as an economy.  We’ve got very imaginative people on the ground in the townships who are doing these magnificent jobs, of converting bulk food deliveries into small deliveries and doing other things which save people on petrol and stuff like this. How can we take all that imagination and turn it into something bigger? That is the central question: it’s not creating 500 industrialists with very big companies from scratch. It’s about saying, how can we start with those million people, some of whom will become incredible stars.

On Superstars who are waiting to be discovered

There are stars. I mean, for many years, I talked about Siyabulela Xuza, who was a young man in the Eastern Cape who started playing with chemicals and causing minor explosions in his mother’s kitchen. He then decided to invent rocket fuel and managed to beat the young space record in terms of sending an amateur rocket into space. And it was recognised in America and he got a minor planet named after him by some American institution. Now, that kind of story should have been across the pages of all newspapers in order to inspire young people to do what he did. But we just don’t have that. The papers tend to block out all the stuff about township economies and only deal with the mainstream economy.  I just feel that there are just so many problems that could be resolved, including the unemployment problem, if we really, really focus on what we can do to turn the township economy into a real thing.  

On his foxes and hedgehogs analogy and how you can apply it to the township economies

I’ve used this for years, but it’s mainly to do with looking at the future. A hedgehog will take a single forecast and bet all his money on that single forecast coming through. Whereas a fox will play different scenarios, look at the flags and then attach probabilities to the different scenarios. And then based on that probability mixture, make a financial decision or any other decision. But of course, that’s exactly what entrepreneurs are about. They’re about how much money can  actually be put into his idea? How can I turn it into a success? They’re dealing with uncertainties all the time, so they are natural foxes. 

On his idea about an economic CODESA

I’ve said that the CODESA you put together are not just the usual academics and unionists and government people to come up with another plan. You actually get the people who’ve run real businesses. And I would find people like GG and the guys actually in the township who have made successful businesses. I would get some of the stars, you know, Discovery. We’ve got so many companies which were founded by genuine entrepreneurs. The mining industry started in South Africa through the entrepreneurs of the 19th century. They came here. It wasn’t a government induced kind of industry. It was started by entrepreneurs who thought of a way of making money. So I want to see the the real lineup for this economic CODESA, including those sort of guys with real experience in building up businesses, as well as some of the township stores and then, build up a plan which has real targets in the short term 

On building a model of world champions in the economy because that exists in South Africa

Our Springbok team are the current World Cup holders. And we did it. People would have said, 30 years ago, you could never achieve that thing, building up a nonracial team and still winning the cups. But we’ve done it, we’ve shown that we’ve got the talent and and we’ve got to do the same with the economy, and in a way that is merit based. That’s what I point out: you don’t win rugby games if your team isn’t based on merit, but because of the development and the training and all the stuff that goes into creating a good rugby team, you can do it and you can do exactly the same with the economy. Because the one thing a massive economy allows is for you to buy something from somebody else because it’s cheaper or it’s more efficient or it’s whatever it is. The usual economies in terms of the sort of free market are based on merit. And, that’s what I want to see because it already exists. It already exists in that township economy, which is highly competitive and in producing people who are genuine foxes who can run businesses.  

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