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Right off the bat I am going to make a confession. I have never found myself behind the steering wheel of a BMW. For some inexplicable reason, that opportunity seems to escape me.
I make this disclosure because on Friday Bodo Donauer, BMW South Africa’s managing director, made a rather interesting inference from how South Africa is being driven. I found it rather interesting that he would use a driving analogy to explain why as a country we might be losing traction. If he was a pilot, I am sure he would talk of altitude, turbulence and so on. But since he is a car maker, a driving analogy is only natural.
Donauer was speaking at the Black Business Executive Circle’s third Chairman’s Awards in Kyalami. This year’s honorees included AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Kaizer Chiefs Football Club executive chairman Kaiser Motaung, Black Like Me hair-care products company founder Herman Mashaba and Sipho Nkosi, the chief executive of Exxaro Resources.
Donauer said that South Africa was spending a disproportionate amount of time “looking in the rear-view mirror”.
“A rear-view mirror,” he said, “is not the best solution for dynamic driving or for steering a country forward.”
Undoubtedly, what informs his view of how South Africa is being steered is informed by his extensive experience in making cars under one of the world’s most admired marque names.
In the broadest sense, Donauer makes a valid point. Stretching his driving analogy a step further, one might then be tempted to ask: what if South Africa were a car? What sort of car is it?
Does it have dynamic stability control (strong leadership), anti-lock braking system (constitutional safeguards), power steering (economic agility), a satellite navigation system (a roadmap – think the National Development Plan), airbags (social safety net) and park assist (think education)?
I can go on and on about the kind of features that a top-rate car, or a BMW for that matter, is expected to have.
It is just the way it is with cars. Features are an important determinant of whether a car will fly off the showroom floor or not. So it is with countries too.
Donauer’s message to South Africa is simply this: there is an urgent need to develop or acquire much sought-after features that will make the country more competitive and rise to its full potential.
“South Africa needs strong leadership,” he said, adding that the country needed to remedy such issues as the skills gap and the lack of mutual trust between business and the government. Donauer said South Africa was at a major socioeconomic cross-roads and the country needed to take decisive action to fix education and tackle youth unemployment.
And there are numerous lessons in Germany for South Africa. He said there was a reason why the German economy had continued to remain resilient even in the face of trouble elsewhere in Europe. And part of that reason is that Germans, even after two world wars, have made it a priority to create win-win situations.
As an example, “unions have learnt to take care of the unemployed, not just their members”, he said.
In addition, creativity and innovation have become part of the DNA of German enterprise. He told of South Africans – black and white – who were sent by BMW for training in Germany, only to be sent back home as “untrainable”. That serves to underscore the depth of the problem South Africa faces on the skills front, he said.
But of everything he said, nothing seemed to raise the ire of those who spoke afterwards – including Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC deputy president and vice-chair of the National Planning Commission – than the suggestion that South Africa must make less use of “the rear-view mirror”.
He said until such time that BMW made cars with no rear-view mirror, their use would remain critical. “In order for me to move forward I have to look at the rear-view mirror,” said Ramaphosa.
In many ways, one might sympathise with Ramaphosa’s sentiment because it will be fool-hardly to pretend that the damage that centuries of colonialism and apartheid wrought upon South Africa will merely vanish within a mere 20 years.
At the same time, leaders like Ramaphosa must acknowledge the failures that threaten to prolong the transformation of our society. And I say that because I can safely surmise that the concerns that Donauer shared on Friday present a real and present danger to making this a prosperous nation, free of hunger, corruption, violence, ignorance, sexism and racism.