Paddy Upton

South Africa, cry beloved country

South Africa is a country of rich and poor, beauty and litter, generosity and greed, enlightenment and ignorance, Mandela and Zuma, education and illiteracy… and lots in between. Whilst born in that country, I’m fortunate that the work I do across continents allows me the choice to live pretty much anywhere in the world. I’m often asked where I’d chose. Recently I made this tough decision, and an experience I had this morning confirmed that, however controversial, I have chosen well.

On a flight from Cape Town to speak at a headmasters Conference at Queens College in Queenstown (South Africa), I read an article by Discovery CEO Adrian Gore entitled “Things are bad and getting worse for South Africa. Or are they?” (published for the World Economic Forum). Gore pointed to research by Ipsos MORI that suggested of 28 countries surveyed, South Africans are the most uninformed pessimists when it comes to what their future holds. He points to murder rates being high, yet also 50% down from 1994, GDP growth at a paltry 0.8%, yet also 2.5 times the size it was in 1994, and widespread homelessness, yet formal housing up by 131% since 1996. He went on to remind South Africans that they have a sizable GDP, a substantial economy, and lots more to be optimistic about their future.

Yet not all is good. No South African needs reminding that we are cursed with just too many corrupt and incompetent public officials – leaders whose self-serving antics have cost the country an estimated ZAR500 billion and an opportunity cost of approximately 2.5million jobs over the past 10 years. It’s an insult to leadership to refer to some of these people as leaders.

The headmasters conference saw about 25 leaders from often ‘rival’ public boys-only schools, meeting to discuss their challenges, opportunities and to offer support for each other in South Africa’s difficult education and political climate. It seems being a headmaster might be lonelier than being a CEO. There was talk of the importance that their respective schools play in the future of the country. South Africa’s athletes, business and political leaders of tomorrow are currently being shaped and they pass through these elders’ hands. They serve tirelessly and passionately to offer hope for the future of their country. It was clear that few are in it for personal gain or selfish agendas. Their role comes with more challenges and more significance, yet less support and financial reward than most of their business counterparts in similar leadership roles.

Before the conference started I was asked to address 500-odd Queens College high school pupils at a 7.30am assembly. I shared a few sporting anecdotes to suggest that results on the sports field or boardroom alone are incomplete measures of success, and went on to highlight the value of being good people and following ethical and principled processes in the pursuit of excellence, whilst avoiding the short-term win-at-all-costs practices such the metaphorical sandpapering of cricket balls and similar questionable means. I suggested that it was not necessarily the most talented in that school hall that would one day find themselves at top levels of sport and business, but rather those who were at the top of the game when it comes to learning and adopting practices of excellence.

And then something happened that I did not expect.

As the staff left, the Head Boy asked me to wait behind, saying the boys would like to thank me. I stood on the stage the headmaster Mr. van der Ryst as a solo baritone rose up from somewhere in the middle of the school hall. This was followed by a muffled chorus comprising 500-odd mainly black African voices. With each rendition of baritone then chorus, the volume gradually increased. A single whistle joined the chorus, the next was accompanied by five whistles, then 20, then 50.  Orderly rows of schoolboys dissolved as they moved to surround the solo baritone and 500+ rigid bodies melted into rhythm and dance. My skin turned to goose flesh, pride of Africa swelled in my chest, and I don’t know how I managed to stem the emotions that threatened to erupt like a burst fire-hydrant. The energy and song of young African men reached a frenzied crescendo and then quietened to dead silence… I walked off a school stage, entranced, with my lower lip quivering. (Moments later when I found a quiet place to process the experience, that hydrant burst).

With composure regained, I reflected on my decision about where to live. I had already decided on the country where I believed I would have the best quality and experience of life. What I had just witnessed was yet another confirmation that I’d made the right choice. I chose to live in South Africa.

Those who live here or have visited her know the magnificent soul, energy and natural beauty of South Africa. She is also a country cursed with social ills and questionable leadership (and its consequences) that have smudged and even scarred her beauty. The relevance of those amazing headmasters, and of tomorrow’s leaders that are currently passing through their care, is that those smudges can be cleared and scarring healed by a few good men. Specifically, those who are schooled to lead with integrity and whose personal agenda is to serve the greater good. And those few good men will also be smart enough to fill seats at the leadership table with more than a few of the good woman who are out there already doing remarkable things for the environment, society and our country. Female leaders are less likely to exhibit the toxic masculine leadership traits that sees much of South Africa (the world) in the state it’s currently in. Sorry fellow men, but it’s true.

I live in South Africa. And I love it.

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