Clem Sunter, ultimate fox, on Ramaphosa, a post-Covid world, how to succeed in business. #BestofBizNews

In this episode of The Alec Hogg Show, one of South Africa’s most influential business leaders –  Clem Sunter – talks about his early days growing up in Kensington, London and how a chance encounter with a young woman led him to a job at Anglo American. BizNews founder Alec Hogg picks the mind of the well-known futurist, gaining his opinion on the lockdown and how the world may be transformed by Covid-19. Clem Sunter also shares his insights on President Cyril Ramaphosa. – Jarryd Neves

Our guest in this episode is a lad from Kensington, London whose chance meeting with a lass sitting on a wall in Cornwall sent him on an adventure, which was to have a massive impact on South Africa’s peaceful transition. Until fate intervened, the highlight of Clem Sunter’s life had been playing on the undercard of a Rolling Stones concert at his Oxford University. 

He was one half of a folk music duo called Clem and John. Like other guests on this show, Clem was selected on the basis that if his story were captured in book form, it would likely be a bestseller. The only surprise is why South Africa’s most famous futurist hasn’t written that autobiography already.

I don’t think you know this, Clem, but you are our most popular commentator on our podcast. The one you gave about you and Julius Malema fighting for the same economic freedoms – it’s still got people coming into it every month. It’s lovely to be talking with you. You’re not living in Park View anymore?

No, I’ve moved down to Somerset West. I’m in a place called Helderberg Village, which is a retirement village. It’s really nice around here. We’ve got the mountains. But of course, like everybody else in South Africa – and the world – we’ve been under lockdown.

Clem Sunter on being pro lockdown

What do you think about the whole lockdown story?

I’m fully supportive of it, actually. We’re heading for one million deaths and 30 million cases. It’s much more than common flu. There was a scenario that I wrote about two months ago called ‘Much Ado about Nothing‘, which is still believed by many people – including Donald Trump – that we’ve just got to get on with it now. But this is not a nice virus. So I was very pro lockdown. 

Of course, there are a lot of emotional problems that people have been feeling as a result of lockdown. Thank heavens for the digital age, because we’ve managed to stay in contact. If this happened 50 or 100 years ago, we couldn’t have done that. 

Talking about 50 years ago, you were born during the war, the Second World War. Was it difficult growing up in post-war Britain? 

Not really. We had ration books in London. I remember them as a boy and you used to go to a British restaurant and have cottage pie. I lived in Kensington. It was actually a very nice childhood because I could take my model boat and go and sail it on the round pond in Kensington Gardens.

You didn’t really feel it when you were young. By the time that one began to be conscious about the kind of consequences of the war, the whole place had opened up again. I don’t really have the kind of memories of war that, for example, my father had because he fought in it.

Covid is a kind of war

Are there any parallels with what we’re going through now? Many people have called this fight against Covid a war, only rivalled by the World Wars. Is that exaggerating?

It’s obviously, for me, a huge event. We don’t know how this is going to play out in terms of changing this century from the last one. It is a different kind of war. It’s against an unseen virus. But the lockdown, in a sense, has never happened before. Not even when there were great wars did you have the kind of lockdown that we’ve seen in the world. We are only now beginning to adjust to some of the long-term consequences of this lockdown.

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We might even see, for example, the changing nature of work and people moving out of the centre of towns and being more in the country. People not going on tubes to London, or going into Cape Town, or wherever because they’re going to be working from home. So it’s going to have a lot of long-term consequences, just like the two great wars of the last century.

Interesting point, that. I remember an op-ed that Larry Page wrote in the F.T. – must be five or six years ago – where he predicted that property prices in cities would decline because of people living in more pleasant areas, as it were, and the uptake of remote working. Well, it took a Covid crisis for the rest of us to start seeing that this is actually a possibility.

Absolute possibility. Of course, it could affect offices and obviously the property companies that own offices and shopping malls. I mean, I’ve just seen that Amazon is on the lookout for another 100,000 workers because of the demand for e-shopping. 

We’re going back to a new normal, not the old normal. It’ll be very interesting to see how it all plays out. But the one thing that I think everybody’s frustrated with, is just how long the virus has gone on. It reminds me in many ways of the First World War where, when it started, people thought it would be over by Christmas 1914. Of course, it wasn’t. It was a long and terrible war. In a sense, we actually don’t know yet what the total play out of this pandemic is going to be.

Could it still be years?

Well, it obviously depends on a vaccine and, you know, there’s just so many places working on a vaccine. But just remember, HIV/AIDS does not have a vaccine. So we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s an uncertainty. Even if we do have a successful vaccine, there’s the economic consequences of the lockdown which we still have to see in what happens. This virus is just one virus and we could have another one of a similar kind in 10 years time. So people would be trying to learn lessons from this experience so that we’re better prepared for the next one.

Just the scenarios. Before we get there, your scenario: Oxford University. Do you feel a sense of pride having gone there, that they’re right in the forefront of creating a vaccine

Absolutely. I feel tremendous pride that the university is right there in the forefront. I know that they’ve had just one bad consequence in terms of the trial that they’re doing. But it seems to have been due to something else because they’re back in business again with the trial. I wish them the best of luck. It had a wonderful spirit about it; Oxford.

In my case, it taught me how to think about the future, because I had this wonderful philosopher – to whom I went every week for a tutorial – called Anthony Quinson. He was probably the king of logic at the time at Oxford. Occasionally we would disagree over something. Then he would say to me: ‘Occasionally the Catholic Church has to go to the Moulin Rouge’.

Landing a job at Anglo American

From a South African perspective, Harry Oppenheimer often used Oxford and Cambridge and particularly people like you who did PPEs – politics, philosophy and economics – to come into Anglo American. At that stage, it was by far the biggest company in South Africa and a leading global company. How did they recruit you, though? How did you get to even know that they existed?

It’s one of those things I talk about quite a lot, because life is full of unexpected crossroads and having a happy life is taking that right road, when you hit the particular crossroads. In this case, I had left Oxford and was down in Cornwall on holiday. I met a young woman who was wanting to sail with me in a race and we came stone last. She invited me back to supper with her father, who happened to be managing director of Anglo in London at the time. 

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So he said: ‘Why don’t you go up for an interview?’ So I said: ‘Yes, okay. I was thinking of going back to university, but I’ll try this out.’ I got interviewed in London and I landed the job as a management trainee there in 1966. So it was pure chance. If that young woman hadn’t been sitting on a wall outside a Cornish pub at a particular time, I would have had a completely different life. 

Clem Sunter on Cyril Ramaphosa

Your career in Anglo American was spectacular by any account. Becoming head of the gold and uranium division of the biggest gold producer in the world at the time. During the time that you were there, did you get to know or engage much with South Africa’s now president, Cyril Ramaphosa? Given that he was very active in the trade unions?

Absolutely. I remember my first meeting with him, which was in the office of our HR manager at the time. Here was this young guy in a leather jacket full of charisma. We got on very well. He was a very tough negotiator – when we had to negotiate – but we became quite good friends and we even went fishing together. And I have to say, there wasn’t one deal that he didn’t stick to. 

I’m full of praise for Cyril. When people ask me whether I think he’ll do it in South Africa, I say I’m one of those people who feels that he will get us on the high road because he’s got those leadership qualities. Yes, he does tend to look for consensus. But rather like Nelson Mandela, he can lead from the front, as he’s shown in this pandemic and subsequent to the pandemic. 

You mentioned the high road and your contribution to South Africa – if one looks back in 100 years – would surely be the introduction of scenario planning to a very recalcitrant political elite in the 1980s. 

Where did that all come from? Where did that all start? To start looking into the future and employ people like Pierre Wack from Royal Dutch Shell to start looking at the possibilities of where South Africa could go instead of going over the abyss, which to everybody seemed to be just for certain. 

We had a Belgian economist in our London office and he heard about the work that Pierre had been doing with Ted Newland, and the two of them had done scenarios on the oil market – both in the early 1970s and the late 1970s – capturing both oil price shocks in those days. And Shell acted on the second oil price shock and made some money out of it and Pierre became a legend in London. 

And we thought: if he can do it for oil, maybe he can also do it for a mining company. So we asked him to come to South Africa, which he did in the early 80s, and give us a lecture in the Anglo Committee Room, and I happened to be secretary of the Anglo executive at the time. And he blew us away, not just by what he said – but the way he looked. 

He had sort of hooded eyes, a goatee beard. He looked like a futurist, and before he started, he said: ‘Can I light up?’ So we all thought he was going to light a Gauloises – being French. Instead, he produced two incense sticks, and lit them and said: ‘I think about the future much better if I’m smelling incense’. So, that really got to us. 

And so, Gavin Relly – who was chairman at the time – hired him on the spot and said: ‘Who can look after the function inside Anglo?’ And this was my sort of second lucky break, so to speak. He looked around the room and he said: ‘Clem, would you mind doing this? And that’s the story that started unfolding for me. 

Achieving a change in conversation 

And we set up teams in London and South Africa to do a whole research on scenarios for the 1990s – we called it The World in South Africa in the 1990s, and we finished it in about 1985. We gave the presentation in-house to all our employees, and there was such a spectacular response. 

I went to Gavin and said: ‘Would you mind if I gave one or two public lectures?’ And I think that shows the sort of generosity of spirit that Gavin had along with Harry, because he doesn’t say: ‘Oh, no, this is internal research we can’t show’. He said: ‘Yeah, go out there. 

And so the very first lecture I gave was in KwaZulu-Natal at a function organised by Mangosuthu Buthelezi in Pietermaritzburg. And it went down so well that we got lots of telephone calls the subsequent day saying: please, could you give this presentation elsewhere to other groups? And so Gavin, with a couple of other guys: our economist and head of corporate affairs – Michael Spicer and Jim Bass. I said: ‘You go out there’. 

And so we talked about 25,000 people. And yes, I talked to the cabinet. At the time, De Klerk was chairing the meeting with Pik Botha. And I did my high road of negotiation leading to a settlement – that’s the one scenario – and the low road of confrontation leading to civil war and a wasteland as the alternative scenario. 

And I could see that F.W. was a bit worried, but he turned to Pik Botha and said: ‘What do you think about this guy? And Pik said: ‘Oh, I think he’s great, and I think he should talk to the parliamentarians and he should talk to the army and the police and everybody else’. And so it turned into quite a big conversation change. 

I even talked to the Broederbond at Rand Afrikaans University. And so that’s what it achieved – it achieved a change in conversation, because there were lots of other players around changing South Africa at the time. We all know that. But it did achieve that one thing that scenario planning is supposed to do, which is changing the nature of the conversation. 

But isn’t it interesting? Because at that point in time, 1985, many people might forget that that was the Rubicon speech. That was the debt standstill. 

That was a similar scenario to perhaps the one we have in South Africa right now – with an economy that is in tatters in many ways. So, I suppose there might be parallels there that you could be seeing today?

Yes. In fact, Bobby Godsell and Michael Odied – who were the principal creators of the high road and low road scenarios – had one very prophetic aspect to the scenarios. They always said there are two crossroads: there’s the political crossroads – where we have to negotiate with the real leaders, rather than impose an artificial solution on South Africa. 

We need an inclusive economy and entrepreneurial freedom

And there is a second crossroads – which is the economic crossroads, which is we’ve got to get the formula right so that we become a much more inclusive economy, having become a much more inclusive democracy. And that is exactly where we’re at right now, coming out of the pandemic. 

We have got to do everything now to create an inclusive economy because we’ve got nothing to lose now.

We’ve got to do – as I said when I was doing that famous debate with my mate, who’s an economic freedom fighter. I said: ‘I believe in economic freedom as much as you do, Julius. It’s just that I want entrepreneurial freedom’. I want people to be able to make money for themselves. 

And we now should take this model seriously because the nature of work has changed completely from the last century when big businesses were hiring tens of thousands of people. And of course, in South Africa, we had this incredible mining industry – which is no longer what it was. We have to look at a completely different business model, which puts entrepreneurs and small businesses right at the forefront. 

I never really got what you meant about a fox until spending three years in the UK when we were setting up our international operations there. And seeing these foxes in cities: they were so clever. They’re an incredible animal, which we in South Africa don’t really know.

We look at Jackals and we think they’re foxes – but they aren’t. These foxes are something quite unusual. And you use Fox a lot in your 17 books to explain how human beings should be thinking in an economic sense. And that, from what you’ve just said, seems to be: if we all become really foxy – maybe we can turn this to advantage. 

Clem Sunter on the Mind of a Fox

When I wrote The Mind of a Fox with Chantell Ilbury, we decided to use the Greek poet Archilochus who said the hedgehog knows one big thing, whilst the fox knows many little things. Heaven only knows why he did that. But then it was turned into a very popular book in the UK by a professor who was there when I was at Oxford called Isaiah Berlin – called the Hedgehog and the Fox. 

And I thought this is a wonderful way of illustrating the difference between scenario planning and the kind of forecasting that took place in sort of classic strategic planning. Because with scenario planning, you look at several futures, you consider the flags. 

You then apply an intuitive probability to the scenarios in order to make decisions, whereas – obviously with forecasting – you bet the shop on that single forecast. And we were trying to show that actually the former method is better than the latter method. 

And what was really nice was an American who’s considered one of the top futurists there called Philip Tetlock, who wrote a book about three years after ours: we published Mind of a Fox in 2001. In 2005, he came out with a report on 28,000 expert forecasts in America. 

And he used the same analogy as we did of the hedgehog and the fox, and he said foxes are much better at capturing the future and handling it than hedgehogs. And so it was quite a powerful analogy. 

And one of your recent books was Calling All Foxes – your time has come. That was even before Covid, of course. Is it now even more so – foxes – your time is here? 

Yeah, it is. You know, I said for some years that you’ve got to be more agile these days. And what surprises me is that schools and universities haven’t picked up on how much the job market has changed, because presumably they’re trying to prepare students for the market of the future rather than the one that existed in the last century. 

And, in that sense, one of the reasons foxes survive is they adapt to their environment. They adapt to London – as you said. As well as obviously being in forests in the countryside. And we haven’t seen that kind of adapting by a lot of players in South Africa to the changing rules of the game here. 

One of which is that if you want to get down to a reasonable level of unemployment: say, 5%, 6%, if you want to do all these things – you’re going to have to consider that work has changed and we’ve got to create a much more participative, inclusive economy. 

And that’s why I do feel the phrase economic freedom is essential, because we can’t have township economies next to the mainstream economy.

You’ve got to integrate them and find all those incredible entrepreneurs that already exist and have opened businesses and are probably under very harsh circumstances right now with the pandemic. But they will be the lifeblood of the new economy when we open up again. 


Well, I want to make this a ground up operation. I don’t think that you’re going to have the sort of normal kind of national development plan type of process where you assemble a group of very clever people who put together a plan and then try and implement it going downwards. It doesn’t seem to work. 

So, what I want is for municipalities like Cape Town and Durban and Johannesburg to say: well, let’s now go into all the townships around our particular area and seek out the successful entrepreneurs and say: ‘How can we accommodate you to grow your businesses into the mainstream economy?’ 

Should we be setting up an e-stock market, for example, for each city so that you can – rather like eBay – you can put your business on the site and you can seek crowdfunding for that business. I personally feel that every big business in this country should allocate 20% of its supply chain to generating small business. 

We’ve done that at Anglo. We’ve got a whole project called Zimele, which started in the 90s – where we sought out small black businesses to produce stuff that we use underground. And it’s been very successful. And yes, we provided support: financial support, advice and all the other things. 

Clem Sunter and his vision of an entrepreneurial revolution

It has created a whole range of new businesses who’ve obviously now got other clients. So, you know, we feel very good about that.

So, there has to be a sort of alliance between big and small business to generate this kind of entrepreneurial revolution. 

They did it in Japan. I mean, one of the things we studied in Japan in the 80s was the relationship between companies like Toyota and the people who made the components for the cars. And it was called a dual logic economy: big business and small business working together. We need something like that in South Africa. 

The first thing is to select those 1000 entrepreneurs who are the tops in Khayelitsha, who are the tops in Soweto and say: ‘What can we do to make it much easier for you guys to grow your business?’ And we’ve got some incredible entrepreneurs. I mean, look at the one who’s at the moment done so much in the US – dear old Elon Musk. Educated at Pretoria Boys High. We all know that he’s quite an uncertain individual, but nevertheless, he’s made it! 

I always talk about Siyabulela Xusa, who we interviewed at an Anglo scholarship panel, who created a rocket field in South Africa that was so admired by NASA that they named the minor planet after him. You know, we’ve got these guys – but we don’t laud them and make them the example of the future. And that’s what I want to do. I want to say: it’s entrepreneurs who change nations. 

Look at America. It’s not the president’s: it’s Henry Ford, it’s Walt Disney, it’s Bill Gates, it’s Steve Jobs. I mean, Steve Jobs had a Syrian father who owned a restaurant in Los Angeles, and then he was brought up by the Jobs family. But he’s probably changed people more than anybody else.

Clem, the scenarios that you spoke to us about – first of all in March and then in April again. There were firstly three scenarios for Covid-19, Now, there are four. The tightrope scenario – is that the one that we’re going through at the moment? 

The tightrope scenario

The tightrope is absolutely what every nation is going through – where the government is striving not to fall into a kind of Spanish flu, Spain-again scenario, as I called it, where it really does kill millions of people. They don’t want that to happen. I mean, we’re approaching a million deaths right now, but we’re not 20 or 30 million deaths. So, one wants to avoid that at all costs. And as you rightly say, one’s got to look at how the fatality rate progresses. 

On the other side, of course, is the economic kind of collapse of the 1930s – which I called the camel’s straw. It’s where the pandemic isn’t too big, but the lockdown causes a sort of catastrophic long period of economic recession or depression. And, of course, governments are trying to avoid that, too. 

So, it’s a very careful balancing act between those two scenarios. And, of course, there’s a lot of wobbles along the way. We can see it in the UK right now, and in America and everywhere. So, it’s a tricky situation. 

The New Age people talk about the Mayan calendar, which I think started in 2012, where the world changed and transformed. Anything in that that actually rings true – even if you aren’t a New Ager – that things must change or the old way is perhaps going to have to be different in future?

Climate change – the biggest issue of the next century

The crunch Alec is the environment, you know. I mean, that’s where Generation Z thinks totally differently from us. I mean, I’ve called it the green flag ever since 1989 when I wrote a book with Roy Siegfried and Brian Huntley – two very prominent South African environmentalists – where they said that climate change is going to be the biggest issue of the next century. 

And it’s not going to be just the gradual warming up of the planet – it’s going to be the more extreme weather patterns. And you can see that! You can see the fires in California, in Oregon earlier this year, sight of Sydney.

This is desperate stuff, but our generation still puts economic development well ahead of climate change. 

This one girl said to me, when I talked to the school. She said: ‘You guys don’t take the green flag seriously because guess what? You’ll be dead by the time it’ll become really toxic.’ And so we are going to have to cope with it. 

And I guess that’s why young people have a different mind about climate change, because it is huge. And I know that there are people who say the science isn’t there, but I kind of accept that there is a link between what’s going on with the greater frequency of fires and drought and all the other extreme weather events. 

The greater frequency and intensity of those events is linked to climate change. And so, young people do think very differently about our planet to us.

And the impact that’s going to make – the different thinking? 

Well, the different thinking means that as we come out of this pandemic, it is absolutely essential to look at how we can now create a greener economy. And I just wish that Trump would come to the party on this one, because he pulled out of the Paris accord and, of course, that’s weakened the whole movement to try and create a new economy based on new technologies. 

But as I said to people, you know, we don’t know what those technologies are until somebody like Steve Jobs comes along and says, if we do it this way, we can be much smarter. You did it in the sort of social media field. 

Somebody like him has to come along and say: ‘This is how we can produce energy. This is how we can make sure that when we buy products that the carbon footprint is much lower than before.’

There are people out there with these brilliant ideas and we’ve got to release their imagination. 

So let loose the foxes.

Absolutely. And particularly here in South Africa. And I always end now any webinar or something I do with a blessing: may the fox be with you!

Well, this has been episode four of the Alec Hogg Show, this time featuring Clem Sunter, former executive, author, futurist and possessor of one of the finest minds you’re ever likely to encounter. 

For more on Clem Sunter:

To listen to the entire inspiring interview, download the link here: The Alec Hogg Show: Meet Clem Sunter – the ultimate fox. Ep 4 (or find the interview on BizNews Radio on the BizNews home page). You can also subscribe to The Alec Hogg Show on Spotify here.

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