United in Diversity – South Africa’s Path

Dr. Boris Blumberg highlights the November 2018 MaastrichtMBA international week in South Africa:

In 2001, the term “BRIC” coined the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China as characterized by rapid economic growth. When South Africa joined the club, it became “BRICS” in 2010. Since then, the economic and political development of the five countries diverged and the common pattern of rapid economic growth and moving towards a democratic society disappeared.

The MaastrichtMBA has held its international weeks in four of the five BRICS countries. We recently visited our partner, the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa and returned with an important message.

In 1994, the ANC (African National Congress) won the first free election in which all South Africans could vote. This election marked the end of Apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela became president. An utmost divided nation (80% black, 9% white, 9% colored, 2% Asian) embarked on a project that would take generations to complete: to become united in diversity. South Africa’s path has not been a straight upward development since then. Since Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s fifth president in February 2018 however, a wind of optimism has blown over the country and its people have gained trust in their ability to overcome differences and build a great united nation. Our host from Stellenbosch University even told us that her children no longer describe their classmates in terms of ethnicity – for them the color of the skin has become an irrelevant characteristic. While we still recognize differences in skin color, neither do we believe they matter.

During our week in South Africa, we also visited the headquarters of Pick n Pay, one of the largest supermarket retailers in South Africa which is now also expanding to other African countries. Ms. Suzanne Ackerman, Director of Transformation and daughter of Pick n Pays founder, explained the role of corporates in the development of her nation with a simple four-responsibility layer hierarchy. It starts with the fourth or bottom layer, which represents the economic responsibility for financial performance. This is followed by the third layer above it, which represents the legal responsibility to obey the law. This is governed by the second layer, which represents the responsibility to behave ethically. Above all of these is the foremost philanthropic responsibility, which is to be a good corporate citizen and advance the nation and its projects as a whole.

After visiting Pick n Pay, we went from multi-billion corporates completely to the other side and worked with small businesses in Khayelitsha – South Africa’s second largest township housing 1.4 million people (i.e. bigger than Amsterdam). The goal of those entrepreneurs was to earn a bit more than the minimum wage (€200 a month) and use any exceeding profits to build their community and a nation united in diversity.

Now that is the South African vision of being “united in diversity.”

Isn’t that vision – combining corporate and personal missions to be good citizens – an excellent role model for societies beyond South Africa?