Koos Bekker, chief executive of Naspers, delivered this speech on acceptance of the South African Ernst & Young and Rand Merchant Bank Best Entrepreneur for 2006 award on November 15 at Summer Place in Johannesburg.
Ladies and gentlemen, folks
I am greatly honoured that you should think me an entrepreneur worth giving a gong to. I discovered that I liked media and business quite by accident – I studied law and most of my family saw businesspeople as smouse. Rather surprisingly I found in myself a love of trying out new concepts and of building structures, as someone else may like the opera or like eating prawns. I’ll do it even if there’s no pay, just for the hell of it.
Why? Don’t really know. If you want to discover how an entrepreneur’s brain works, ask someone else. In general we are poor judges of our own motivations.
One observation, perhaps: the idea of the heroic chief executive standing there on the bow of his ship as it cleaves the waves, his firm jaw jutting into the wind, his black cape flowing behind him – let’s tell the kids that the whole image is fake. Some of the best entrepreneurs I’ve met globally are people with handicaps: sometimes dyslexia or being a member of a minority group is exactly what fires the engine of the imagination.
But I’m guessing – rather ask the shrinks.
So if I can’t share with you useful secrets about being an entrepreneur, perhaps you will allow me a few comments about the environment within which I and the other entrepreneurs present here operate. If you think of us as fish, society is the water we swim in.
What happened to our society? When I was a kid, the future of South Africa looked abysmal. As a student, looking ahead at my life, I expected civil war, claustrophobia, agitators baying for Stalinism, police shooting civilians – a torn society. And on a personal level, as a white South African, I expected to be despised wherever I went in the world.
What actually happened? We had a transition to democratic rule that was as sudden as it was miraculous. I haven’t yet met anyone who claims that he foresaw exactly what would happen within that timeframe.
So we’ve had our miraculous revolution. Now what?
During the recent Soccer World Cup the South African delegation was given a tour of Berlin. We saw a city with neat buildings and orderly gardens, where the trains run on time. Then they showed us, in the middle of it all, the German parliament – the Bundestag. As we filed through the dressed sandstone corridors, the guide stopped our group and said, ‘‘There – lean over the balustrade and look into that courtyard and tell me what you see.’’
As we leant over, we saw a large rectangular bed cut into stone. In it a wild and disorderly collection of weeds was growing. It seems an artist had the idea to get soil from different parts of Germany, with whatever seeds it might contain, and allow it all to grow without management. Here a thistle jostles with a marogo plant, there a khakibos is being strangled by a young tree; it’s complete chaos.
People have interpreted this piece of conceptual art in many ways. What struck me most is that it is a comment on the fortunes of the German nation. When Germany was unified in the 19th century – their version of 1994 – it had much better public schooling than Britain. It boasted more distinguished philosophers and better music and a more inventive chemical industry. In the next century it became a Nazi state and destroyed itself.
Nations often mess up beautiful beginnings. A political transformation is like a medical operation – always dangerous and much depends on the aftercare, given by fallible humans. Russia had a glorious revolution in 1917 and then created a nightmare; France had a wonderful new beginning in 1789 and then descended into recrimination and anarchy. But at about the same time the US had its rebellion: somehow Washington and Jefferson gave better aftercare and created what became the strongest state in the world. India had a shaky start to independence, but is now doing rather well.
How well have we done so far?
I would argue that we made a fine start. Which entrepreneur in any country would not be grateful for an environment of sound economic policies, low inflation, reasonable growth and smooth political relations with international trading partners? These excellent things didn’t happen by themselves, like weeds in that flowerbed in Berlin. These policies were carefully tended by the founding fathers of our modern South African economy: Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel, Alec Irwin, Tito Mboweni, Mandisi Mpahlwa and their colleagues. May I ask whether you would be so kind, on behalf of all entrepreneurs, to give them a big hand?
Of course we now have to tend our little patch, from day to day. And sometimes well-meaning, reasonable people may well disagree: should we pull this weed or prune that rose into an ornamental shape? So many topics suggest themselves for discussion, but allow me to touch on just two: BEE, and how we see ourselves as a nation.
Regarding the first: right now our group is completing two huge BEE schemes in our South African operations: one in the pay TV sector and one in print. We had a wonderful response and more than 100 000 black and brown South Africans applied for each – the schemes were twice oversubscribed.
Now we’ve had a number of complaints from customers - it’s evident that some of our white countrymen resent BEE. They see it as unnatural and unfair: a black billionaire can get subsidised shares but no white person qualifies, despite his or her merits or poverty. So, they say, let’s test the logic: assume three ANC members went into exile and returned after democracy. Their children were all born abroad. Now the kids of the black exile can get shares, those of ethnic Indians qualify, but those of the white exile are excluded. Of course the children of Chief Lucas Mangope or the other apparatchiks of apartheid can all merrily take a cookie, provided they are black.
How does one respond? Conceded - at individual level social engineering is often unfair and cruel. But we are trying to fix a legacy of the social engineering of apartheid, which was even more cruel. If we do too little to address the inequalities of the past, we risk radicalism among black people. If we keep harking back to the past and punishing the politically innocent new generation of whites and Indians and browns simply because they are not black enough, we will drive the best of them abroad.
One of the great recent successes of India and China is that they stopped the haemorrhaging of talent and started hauling back those engineers and scientists and medical doctors and business talents that emigrated to the US and Australia. We continue to bleed talent.
So what to do with BEE? My humble suggestion would be that we drive it hard for a fixed period, say five years. If we don’t drive BEE with energy, nothing will come of it. Then we put an end to it and build a normal, integrated society where all individuals are treated equally, irrespective of race.
And in doing so, we have to take human nature into account: if we don’t build into our BEE programme a fixed stop date now, it will never end.
By the way, how was income tax introduced in a typical country – take the UK? As a temporary measure to pay the cost of the First World War, to be abolished, they said, once that was done. Fat chance: tax inspectors and advisers and recipients saw to it that income tax became a fixture to this day. Human nature being what it is, the same will happen to BEE: a whole industry of ratings agencies and banking boutiques and beneficiaries is being created that will lobby for BEE to continue until the cows come home.
And if we allow BEE to run away, it will in time destroy the cohesion of our society. Let’s not forget that the young people leaving our universities now were barely 10 or 12 when apartheid ended – the first president they can clearly recall was Nelson Mandela. Time flies. So how about this? Let’s all work hard over the next five years to make BEE succeed, but let’s build a self-destruct mechanism into the legislation now to ensure that it will come to an end on a fixed date. After that, we start life as a normal society where skin colour no longer determines your fortunes. Let’s debate it.
This links to the second point: how we see ourselves as a nation.
Just for the fun of it I did a little experiment. I called our MultiChoice chief in Nigeria and asked him to pop out into the street and stop the first five pedestrians. Please ask them, I said, whether any of the following names ring a bell:
and just to check:
We all know them, but the result there? People in Lagos have no clue. Then I called a secretary in Holland and asked her to repeat the exercise: no joy there either.
I then asked our Nigerian chief to compile a list of five famous Nigerians, excluding the political head and soccer stars that play in Europe. How many of you can identify two or more of the following, and name their professions?
Pete Odechie (actor)
Onyeka Owenou (music)
Frank Nweke (min of information)
Dora Akunyili (Director General, NAFDAC – what’s this?)
Dr Reuben Abati (newspapers).
Or try the following list of famous Dutchmen, compiled by our secretary:
Frans Molenaar (fashion)
Hans Klok (illusionist)
Freek de Jonge (comedian)
Hans Wiegel (politician)
Irene Moors (TV presenter).
Not a single soul?
My point is the following: if one listens to our internal debate, it sometimes sounds as if South Africa is an accidental meeting place for displaced persons from West Africa, and from India, and from parts of Europe, that have little in common. But is this reality? Our group operates in about 50 countries. Karen and I lived overseas for many years. Have you seen how Sethefricans abroad typically act?
You take a group of locals to India, and the so-called “Indians” in your group say, “Hey, man, these people here are weird: have you seen the cows in the street?” Then you take your team to Nigeria and the so-called blacks say, “Wow, omotelele! The women here are six feet tall, and why do they talk so loud?” Then you fly a conference to Holland and the Afrikaners in your group say, “Ag nee wat, where does one get pap en vleis; I’m sick of belegde broodjes met komijnkaas.”
We sometimes speak as if a common identity hardly exists; in reality South Africans of all pigmentations are growing closer by the day. Any foreign visitor can see what we ourselves miss: that we are becoming a new nation. We are already much more alike than we admit. We are increasingly interwoven and interdependent; every day we share more experiences and become more alike.
This will become a great nation if we mind our little patch, won’t it?