Last week I had dinner with a good Nigerian friend. We have known each other for 15 years or more. He runs his own business in Nigeria and is frequently a visitor to South Africa where he has a small operation. He is well known and highly respected in Nigeria.
As we caught up after some years I asked him about his impressions of how things were going in South Africa.
I was intrigued by his response. He said it is fantastic coming to South Africa and seeing the sophistication of our economy, the quality of our products and services, and the extraordinary infrastructure. If only we had that in Nigeria, he said!
He then asked me what my impressions were about Nigeria. I said: “well here in South Africa we are talking about Nigeria overtaking the South African economy, the energy and dynamism of the Nigerian people, the investment into infrastructure that has flowed from oil revenue over the last ten years and Nigeria as a regional, if not African, hegemon.” What followed was an intense and interesting conversation as we shared our insights and stories about our respective countries.
Earlier in the week I had asked a consultant about a brand I was interested in and he said to me “of course it is hard for the company to see the brand on the label of the bottle because they are all inside the bottle”.
That quote came back to me as I drove home reflecting on firstly, how we see ourselves, secondly, how we see others, and finally, how others see us.
South Africa has many challenges. The privilege of being at GIBS is to see so many individuals and companies come through our doors and talk about the competitive and other challenges they face.
The danger is that the extent of the challenges in health care, primary education, local government delivery, etc. leads us to paint a picture that is skewed. Of course being slightly paranoid is not a bad thing as it keeps us on our toes, but losing perspective is not a good thing and maybe sometimes we are in danger of doing that.
Most people I talk to believe South Africa still has significant latent potential. Most business leaders I talk to think we are underperforming, that the state could be far more efficient and effective, that our politics still seem to be awkward and difficult, and that the contribution the private sector makes to the nation is not sufficiently recognised or acknowledged.
Most government people I talk to acknowledge that the state is under pressure, but believe there has been very significant delivery across a wide set of platforms, including electrification, water, publication education and so on.
Of course in a fast-paced society where we all have different viewpoints, everyone is left to come to their own conclusion.
The conclusion for me last week is not to misread our balance sheet and to focus on the assets and not just the liabilities.