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In this first article, I pick up on the topic of leadership that I initiated in my Presidential Address, in which I listed three key leadership traits that I believe are required at this time in our society and our industry. I firmly believe that the continuing (and increasing) inequality and poor social cohesion in South Africa is attributable to the ‘poverty’ of leadership and lack of or ‘unemployment’ of imagination to lead this country to fulfil its potential as a leading player in the socio-political and economic spheres, both regionally and globally.

What are those traits, then, that we as leaders need to begin South Africa’s journey of development? Firstly, vision, a rather obvious characteristic which has always been associated with the role of leadership. However, it requires specific mention in our national context – what is our national and common vision for the future? There is no right or wrong vision, but rather the desire and ambition for progress and better life for many South Africans than what we are experiencing today. Then I put forward courage or boldness – this is essential in order to, firstly, avoid conforming to populist rhetoric and rather to take action that breaks out of the norm and is transformational in many respects, and secondly, to take people along on this journey and translate that vision into experience. Not everyone will be convinced of the common good and the responses will be both amazingly negative and positive, despite the benefits that could be obtained. Lastly, the character of self-leadership, and specifically selflessness. I describe this trait as the ability to act on behalf of others rather for one’s own benefit. As leaders we are exposed to many resources that we must apply for the creation of value for employees and community at large. However, we have witnessed how these resources have been abused for personal benefit, resulting in permanent destruction of value and disruption of the lives of many people.

I’ll focus on the vision trait for the rest of this article and will discuss the other two traits in subsequent articles. I was intrigued by the national response to the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA 2019) and in particular the criticism of his vision of South Africa. In particular, political and public commentary focused on the following excerpt from the speech:

‘We want a South Africa wherein all enjoy comfort and prosperity. But we also want a South Africa where we stretch our capacities to the fullest as we advance along the superhighway of progress. We want a South Africa that has prioritised its rail networks, and is producing highspeed trains connecting our megacities and the remotest areas of our country. ‘ We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from Ethekwini back here. We want a South Africa with a high-tech economy where advances in e-health, robotics and remote medicine are applied as we roll out the National Health Insurance. We want a South Africa that doesn’t simply export its raw materials but has become a manufacturing hub for key components used in electronics, in automobiles and in computers. We must be a country that can feed itself and that harnesses the latest advances in smart agriculture. I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories’.

For the first time in a long while we are seeing the employment of imagination and expression of a vision of what South Africa could be, in very tangible ways. What are the implications of pursuing the South Africa we want, as described by the President? Here are my high-level thoughts.

  1. Implications for mining and metallurgy—I’ll make reference to the Gautrain in Johannesburg, which was our first high-speed train installation, at approximately R30 billion for an 80 km rail network; the demand for several basic materials to build the networks of rail connectivity will be unprecedented in South Africa. Think of the demand for steel (and in turn, the various constituent minerals such as iron ore, manganese, ferrochrome, nickel, and coking coal) and other specialty metals and materials, not only for the rail, but for the stations, the coaches, signalling and communication systems to name a few. More accurate figures can be calculated, mining investment (but still subject to the appropriate policies) would exponentially increase for the development of new mines, and the heavy manufacturing industry would experience investment in technology and innovation to meet this demand.
  2. Construction and hospitality industries—we have almost forgotten about the glory days leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when we experienced respectable levels of economic growth, well above the current 0.5% expected for 2019, from the investment in building our stadiums, the Gautrain and tourism, which are also able to create unskilled and semi-skilled employment opportunities.. That need not be a long-lost dream, but can be a reality again, for at least the next twenty-five to thirty years.
  3. Skills development and education—an economic boom of the nature envisioned by the President will require the development and empowerment of all South Africans, with specific focus on those who are unemployed (the many matriculants and graduates of our universities) and those who have lost hope. New industries and new owners of companies will emerge. Opportunities, both small and large, will be aplenty for all to share and benefit from. Investments from this vision could significantly arrest the increasing unemployment, especially amongst our youth and women who suffer the brunt of poor economic development.
  4. Social cohesion—the South Africa we want should not only be about material benefits, but must also encompass a value system that will mend the fractures that have been created from both our apartheid past and the more recent poor socio-political and economic developments of South Africa’s democracy. The corruption in the private and public sectors is placing South Africa firmly, and high up, on the list of most corrupt countries in the world – this is not the kind of list we want to appear on. This corruption has, among other effects, robbed the nation of its self-esteem and basic services, such as health, education, and municipal services to name a few; it has created uncertainty for both young and old, black and white, women and men such that large amounts of money and skills are leaving the country to seek better prospects elsewhere. The South Africa we want will have leaders who hold out hope for its people, a country that nurtures and protects its citizens and provides opportunities for all for learning, growth, and a healthy and thriving life.

Indeed, but this is just a dream …‘a dream (goal) without a plan is just a wish’, said Antoine de Saint Exupery. Do we have the leaders with the courage to take on the required bold actions to make this dream a plan and reality for South Africans? Yes, we do!

M.I. Mthenjane
President, SAIMM