Where is Rissik Street? I keep walking downtown Braamfontein on my way to the SARS (South African Revenue Service) office on Rissik street in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is the 26th of February 2014, budget day in South Africa. The Treasury website indicated one could procure a copy of the 2014 budget review from their office. So, where the heck is Rissik street? Okay, there is Loveday Street, turn left? No, that’s De Korte Street? right? Maybe you should ask someone. Who do I ask? I did ask someone earlier back when I was still on Jorissen street. Okay, that guy over there looks approachable. “Hey bra, I’m looking for Rissik Street”. “Rissik Street, Rissik Street,….” The good Samaritan checks his phone, repeating to himself aloud “Rissik Street, Rissik street…” Hmmn I think you’d have to go down Mandela bridge and turn left. Cheers man!” So, I thank him with a smile thinking “over Mandela bridge…is that not where the garage is? No, I’m going to keep walking and maybe ask someone else” As I continue walking uphill (or is it downhill?) on Jorissen Street (which street again?), I thought to myself why the heck do I want a copy of South Africa’s 2014 budget while on vacation despite having contacted the flu and barely able to walk straight.
I first came to South Africa in January 2011 to start my doctoral degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. As is usually the case for first-comers, I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast recommended by one of the staffers at Wits Business School. A dozen trips since, I have to tell you: South Africa is a beautiful country! But what has that got to do with my braving my flu shivers to go far off Braamfontein from Auckland Park to go get a copy of the 2014 budget review? The reason is simple. On my visit this time around, I stayed at the same B&D I first lodged in when I visited the country for the first time in 2011. Something struck me as I met the familiar gazes and exchanged the typical warm African pleasantries. Those eyes. They were the same people who worked there those four years ago. Their economic status hadn’t changed. Their social status hadn’t changed. They were neither thinner nor had they added weight. They were exactly as they were those four years ago! And they are the lucky ones!
So why did I want a copy of the budget? Simple! I wanted to know how much the South African government was going to spend on education. I wanted to know how much was going to be spent on scholarships, education grants, et cetera. For you see, the circumstances of those friends of mine at that B&B likely didn’t change because there was nothing else they could do. They have basic education and were born during the apartheid era. And they are the fortunate few; they have a steady job! For such people, the only hope they have is for their children to have an education, get a plum job and perchance lift the other members of the family out of poverty. An education, then a job, and perhaps some dignity at last. If only it were that simple!
It all boils down to a simple phrase: Economic freedom! (No entity has exclusivity on that phrase by the way). That is what us Africans do not yet have enough of. Not that all of us are not economically constrained in one way or another. Yes, including the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of this world. It is the degree that differs. Am I economically free if I’m able to afford three meals a day? Is that enough? Am I economically free if I’m able to, in addition to feeding, send my children to school? Is that enough? Or is it when I’m able to go on vacations to exotic lands? Enough? Is it when I have a car? OK, what type of car? A German car? Free? A house? One house? Two? What is economic freedom? Is it when I’m able to spend more than one dollar a day? And by the way, what is that? One dollar? You couldn’t buy a decent meal on one dollar in some African cities talk less in chic Johannesburg.
So yes, the budget! My trek was not in vain it turns out. There would be increased spending on education initiatives for all South Africans (mostly blacks you see). Maybe more in the future? Quite likely. But then comes the question of the appropriate conditions for acquiring knowledge. If most live in ramshackle sheds, sometimes a dozen people in a single room by some accounts, is it likely I’ll be able to do any amount of decent study under such conditions? Never mind the noise coming from outside as rival gangs throw “jibes” at each other. And o yes, my beautiful African sister is sleeping. Thank God! It is late. She mustn’t stay out late, you see. The odds against the black population in South Africa is unbelievably daunting!
I use South Africa as an example because it is the most advanced country on the African continent. It has a world class financial market, the infrastructure is superb and it has huge knowledge capital (mostly white-owned). But that is not a bad thing, at all. The literature on development in Africa is awash with talk of skills transfer and all that good stuff. As knowledge resides in the brains of human beings, well they have to want to come over to the continent in the first place before any transfer can take place. In the case of South Africa, that is not a challenge! They already live there! You see, the path to economic freedom as Mandela realized early on requires the joint efforts of both black and white South Africans! Incidentally, the case is no different in the rest of Africa. The majority of African SMEs with capital in excess of one million US dollars (USD1mn) is owned by resident but non-black Africans.
So you see, the problem with Africa; two words: Knowledge and Leadership! We have a deficit of knowledge and leadership in Africa! So, how did we get here? Surely, a lot of us go to school. A lot of Africans are to be found in the top schools around the world. Most of our leaders went to Oxbridge, Ivy League schools and a lot of Africans are (and have been) exemplary leaders in business, politics, and international relations. Well, I’ll say it. The President of the United States is African! The CEO of McDonalds is African! The United Nations has had two African Secretaries-General! (or is it Secretary-Generals? knock on the head). The City in London and Wall Street in New York have many African Managing Directors (and some CEOs?). Thus, the problem is not us as a people. It has to be something else. The environment? Our culture? Religion? Surely, something must be said for why Africans thrive in distant lands and yet flounder in their native countries.
Ah yes, the budget! It is no matter really. All sides of the divide know they have to address the poverty of black South Africans, you see. And indeed all Africans! They only differ on how to go about it. Indigenization? Black Empowerment? Nationalization? Land reforms? Capitalism? Socio-capitalism? Africapitalism? All fancy words, if you ask me. The immediate and feasible solution is education and leadership by all Africans! Leadership is a fancy word as well it turns out. Well, it means labour leaders should think about the consequences of their actions on job creation when they decide to go on strikes. It means African leaders should be tough in pre-exploration negotiations of natural resources in their countries. It means we should not throw trash out of our car windows as if some miracle would pick them up the street for us. It means we shouldn’t attend parties organized by public officials when clearly they were organized from the proceeds of corruption. It means we shouldn’t so much as exchange pleasantries with a corrupt public official. It means we would vote for the person with the best ideas. It means we’d pay our taxes. It means we’d not jump the queue. It means we wouldn’t cheat in exams. It means we won’t drive against traffic. Leadership, it turns out, would be required of all of us. Not just our rosy-cheeked leaders. They all have shiny and rosy cheeks! I’m trying to remember any of our leaders without comfort written all over them. Okay, one President has a steely, hard look.
Irrespective of their troubles, however, Black South Africans still have it better than most Africans. Their government provides them all sorts of social assistance. You only need to visit OR Tambo International Airport to see how many citizens of other African countries visit South Africa on a daily basis. So, what about Nigeria? My dear country. Soon perhaps to become the biggest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa (My South African friends give me a scowl anytime I throw that jibe at them). Well, size is not enough. It reminds me of a scene I witnessed at OR Tambo on one of my trips. The immigration officer asked these pretty white South African girls (they caught my eye, you see) why the heck they were going to Lagos. The damsels simply looked at each smiling (laughing actually). Today, a lot of South African capital is making its way into Nigeria and increasingly other African countries. Those smart South Africans now realize there is increasingly more gold to be earned by looking up north! Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons I am optimistic about Africa. This is because it is not only South African capital that has been making the rounds. Nigerian capital has been spreading across the continent as well.
So yes, Nigeria. We are hosting the World Economic Forum for Africa in May 2014. And guess what, they are all going to talk about financial inclusion. If you ask me, I’ll just say fill the panels with Kenyans! There is a lot they could teach the rest of Africa about financial inclusion. And by the way, any bank in Africa thinking of opening more branches is likely not being strategic. The key to increasing financial inclusion in Africa is through mobile devices. It reminds me of the story of a major African telecom firm’s move into Nigeria. The African and international business community thought they had to be mad! More than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, how are they going to be able to afford a mobile phone? They said. It turns out the informal economy may be larger than the data suggests. Don’t take my word for it. Go and check the income statements of the major African telecom firms. And mind you, all the revenue is cash!
So, what about Rissik Street? It turns out the SARS office was at the very end (or beginning?) of Rissik Street. It is more like the story of Africa and its development. The beginning and end (up to this point in our history) of our development journey hasn’t changed much. We are still poor. We still don’t produce much. We are still dependent on foreigners for aid. Asian tigers once our contemporaries still give us aid. It is a sad narrative. But it doesn’t have to remain so. As global capital becomes more spread out, striding east and west, in there lies a great opportunity for Africa. With knowledge and leadership, we can change our fortunes if we choose. It starts with you and I.