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Don’t invest in South Africa, invest in its people


By Alan Hilburg

What’s missing from the conversation about the impact of direct foreign investment in South Africa today?

Government leaders, CEOs, economists, and the media obsess about the bottom-line investment figures committed, rather than the single most important asset in the equation. People. 

People make investments happen.  People, not plans, deliver results. 

If you don’t invest in the people of South Africa at the same time one invests in South Africa it’s likely that you won’t contribute to ending the inequalities that keep South Africans from having the opportunity to succeed.  Companies that don’t invest in people are repeating the 300 year old tradition of being takers, not givers. 

All relationships to achieve trust must have balance and equilibrium. As a result, investments can’t just be extractive, they must also be contributive.

I, like everyone who invests in South Africa, are in South Africa not by chance…but by choice. 

With the decision to be here comes a responsibility to end the one way history of first world foreigners in this country. For us at HilburgAssociates, we are trying to build more than an African advisory business for companies whose brand and reputation are being threatened, we want to help build bridges between individuals and institutions that share a common commitment to develop opportunities for South Africans.

Our clients’ challenge is building a culture of trusted relationships in a society that is experiencing a crisis in distrust.  This contributes to many of South Africa’s woes.  And, while the hostile labour relations climate, and erosion in business confidence, gives many a foreign investor reason to hit the pause button, I believe this is a good moment to press the ‘play’ button and reveal the leadership necessary to guide South Africa to achieve its unique potential.

During the past few months, the opportunity of being in South Africa has extended to  the privilege of getting to know some truly incredible people that share my desire to satiate the hunger in South African townships and suburbs for the chance to learn critical thinking skills as well as practical business and vocational skills.

Coca Cola’s initiative to develop people’s business skills in the township economy seems like a great example of responsible corporate citizenry and a business sustainability strategy. Recently I met Coca Cola’s Southern Africa Marketing Director, Sharon Keith.  She is a homegrown executive that had benefited from the company’s deep investment in its people and South Africa.  With posts in Atlanta HQ, Dublin and professional development experiences in other emerging markets she explained how one of South Africa’s most admired employers train and develop more than 56,000 direct and indirect employees across the Coca Cola system in South Africa—who in turn support approximately 500,000 dependents.

The Coca Cola program to teach informal vendors and spaza shop owners about cash flow management, inventory control, and other skills to run their businesses more successfully is another great example of the multiplier effect of investing in people. It’s good for the community, the country, and the company’s bottomline.

Foreign investors have a vital role to play in the development of scarce technical skills in South Africa as well.  Samsung is a powerful example of a pragmatic and progressive solution when confronted with a dire shortage of engineers and technicians to staff their manufacturing and service facilities. The Samsung Engineering Academy is a public-private partnership to reboot vocational training in this country.  Samsung professionals help to ensure that the education and training experience is relevant to industry needs.

Another example is Unilever, the fast-moving consumer goods multinational. Employing more than 3,000 South Africans, Unilever’s number one goal is not just to make money.  It’s ensuring that the communities where Unilever does business are better off for the fact that Unilever is there.  To achieve that, Unilever models ‘best practices’ in its employee engagement strategies. They invest heavily in its South African employees to make certain they create a bright future for them and their communities. The company has, for a second year running, been certified as the Number One Top Employer to work for in South Africa by the Top Employer Institute.This accolade was given to Unilever in part because of their highly regarded graduate programme that offers a world class leadership development curriculum offering international careers and mentorship programmes to South Africans.   

In closing, I am reminded of a very thoughtful, well-moderated panel at GIBS about rebranding South Africa.  It was there trying to answer my favorite two word question, “what’s missing?” that I proposed that South Africa should simply not accept foreign investment that doesn’t invest in its people. 

The thesis was simple, South Africa’s brand promise should become ” South AfricaSuccess2 ” 

When a foreign company invests in South Africans, as well as South Africa…everyone wins.

Source: BizNews


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