Strate CEO Monica Singer explains why pioneering Uruguay is breaking so many moulds

Uruguay is doing much that the rest of the world can and is learning from. Like President Jose Mujica who drives an old VW Beetle and gives away most of his pay. And a brave Parliament which voted to fight the drug trade by de-criminalising Marijuana. There’s also the very public acknowledgement through stratospheric valuations of its world famous footballers like Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani. This little South American country is hitting the right notes everywhere. I asked Strate’s CEO Monica Singer,  a Uruguayan by birth, for some insights. Here’s her response.

By Monica Singer*

What is it about Uruguay? A nation squashed between huge neighbours Brazil and Argentina, that produces amazing football players and has beautiful beaches, food and people?

Uruguayan Monica Singer - a chartered accountant who, like many of her countrymen, has been forced to travel to fulfil her career objectives
Uruguayan Monica Singer – a chartered accountant who, like many of her countrymen, has been forced to travel to fulfil her career potential.

It has less than 3.2 million people and over 1.5 million of them live in Montevideo, the capital city, the rest in villages or farms across the country. There are no mountains just a beautiful coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, the estuary formed by the River Plate, vast plains and lots of farms.

The weather is very similar to Cape Town all along the coastline. It rains a lot in winter and in summer it does not rain much, attracting tourists from all over South America to the glorious beaches. As the land is fertile, fruit and vegetables is plentiful – and all of it produced in the way the Western World would call organic.

The main industry is farming with mostly cows and sheep while soy and also huge plantations of gum trees are spread across the land. Even though there is access to amazing fish, either from the river or the ocean, Uruguayans are meat eaters.

The air in summer always smells of burnt wood as the “Parilla” braais are on the go, always using wood never charcoal or gas, so that the meat is soaked in the smell of burnt wood. We also eat every part of the cow. Really everything! From the brains, the testicles, the liver, the kidneys, the intestine even the blood is made into sweet or salty blood sausages. Delicious but not great for the health conscious as they’re laden in cholesterol.

If you want to spot a Uruguayan, it is so easy. We are the only nation in the world that walks everywhere holding a  “termo” flask that contains hot water and “mate” which is a tea drunk out of a small pot made from a squash like the calabash and sucked through a metal straw.

We love talking. Especially about how we won the football World Cup in 1932 and again in 1950 against Brazil in Maracana nogal! Football is in our blood and that is why we produce so many football players that are fighters and will do anything to help the team win a game.

Uruguayans can also be very calm and laid back as they love spending time at the beach or with family and friends. They are seldom in a hurry, although you would not think so if you saw how they drive. Full of passion and with one hand on the hooter and the foot on the accelerator!

Uruguayans don’t like change and they also very content with very little so it is not surprising that our president

The President's Limo. No kidding. This pic, published by the BBC, shows Uruguayan President Jose Mujica's most valuable asset.
The Uruguayan President’s “Limo”. No kidding. This pic, published by the BBC, is a close-up of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s most valuable asset.

Jose Mujica still lives in his old house and drives a Volkswagen Beetle that people say is falling apart (see right).

The people are also highly educated as education is free and the standards are world class. Uruguayan love culture and especially music and dancing and they love reading and politics so it’s not surprising that we had in place very advanced laws. For example 40 years ago Uruguay passed the law currently being debated in South Africa as to whether or not parents are allowed to hit a child to get them to behave. It is the reason why Uruguay is now considering allowing the sale of marijuana in a controlled manner as a way to reduce the power of the illegal trade.

When I came to South Africa I started university at Wits in second year after having done two years of university in Uruguay. I finished my studies as a chartered accountant in South Africa without failing any exams even though the standard of my English was not great by any means. This proved to me the education I had from Uruguay was of the same standard as that in South Africa. This is one of the reasons Uruguayans that leave the country easily find employment in other countries. The challenge for my country is that the economy is very small for the number of graduates it produces, so many leave for other countries to seek employment.

The key problem is that once you are a Uruguayan you are always a Uruguayan and adapting to a different country is very difficult. I have lived in South Africa for 30 years and while I love this country very much, I still miss Uruguay and need to go back home every year to be with family and friends, go to the beach, eat the meat that has been braaied on wood and have coffee or ‘mate’ with friends while debating for hours on end how to make the world a better place.

 * Monica Singer is the CEO of Strate, South Africa’s Central Securities Depository. She has written this on request and in a personal capacity.  

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