On September 6, South Africa woke up to the news that Raymond Ackerman was no more. He was 92 years old. He was an influential businessman who significantly changed the retail trade in South Africa and continued a legacy that was started by his father in 1916, a legacy that to date spans 107 years.
When a mighty tree falls sometimes time appears suspended, yet silent. And, indeed, Ackerman’s death was one such moment. Pick n Pay shops carried on trading. And yet when such a mighty tree like Ackerman is felled you want big gestures in recognition for his immense contribution to South Africa.
In such a time one wants flags to fly half-mast. Indeed, over the centuries, the most traditional and telling signal that a pope has died has been the tolling of the Vatican's bells, which prompts churches across Rome to join in.
That was the stature Ackerman inspired: the recognition that he made an immense contribution to South Africa and touched many lives, and that his legacy will continue to touch in the future. His success extended far beyond him.
Pick n Pay has swallowed his name. As such his demise becomes an instance of no significance. The Bapedi are correct in saying “Kgaka Kgolo Sena Mabala, Mabala ana le Likhakana”, which translates into the mother guinea fowl has no visibility; colour and attraction is with its chickens.
Ackerman grew his father’s business into one of the biggest chain stores, not only in South Africa, but in parts of Africa as well.
Business schools wrote a lot about Pick n Pay's success model of offering shelf space to many brands, which included the ones for Pick n Pay and competed on the same footing. A distinct model that remains contested to date was the 60-day pay to suppliers.
Some analysts found this model unfair to manufacturers because it meant Pick n Pay had an unfair advantage by accessing supplier resources without paying interest to what basically is a loan. But, on the other hand, others would argue that Ackerman through this strategy opened the exposure of manufacturers’ wares to a win-win marketing, sales and profit-sharing strategy that requires no financial intermediation and rent seekers who add no value in the production-consumption value chain. Thus, this strategy meant better value, especially for the consumers.
Ackerman played a role in the introduction of longer hours of trading – in particular access to Sunday shopping – a great convenience for shoppers, but a drain on employees who have limited time with family and friends. This is a matter that the trade unions have been at loggerheads, not only with Pick n Pay, but many retail chain stores.
The demise of Ackerman plays itself against a South Africa whose social and economic life by all counts has headed precipitously south. After a century of endeavour and belief in South Africa, one has to ask how Ackerman felt and thought of South Africa recently. These are questions that many ask themselves, young and old, across class, race and gender.
What captured Ackerman’s demise story was that the announcement of his death was accompanied by an armed robbery that took place in one of his Pick n Pay stores that very morning.
Shoppers were caught unawares by robbers who struck at the Kensington Mall. The sight of customers pulling themselves from underneath the shelves, others suffering paralysis as they sat helplessly on the floor of the shop and the security officers who were disarmed, and their firearms taken would have shaken Ackerman.
Ackerman did not deserve such a rude send-off. While he didn’t expect flags to fly half-mast in recognition of his lifelong endeavour in retail and touching many lives, he deserved at the time of his passing to see a different South Africa, a less violent, broken South Africa – a country he worked so hard to uplift.
Certainly, the country cannot sit back and see it taken by politics of corruption, robbers, poverty and inequality.
Among significant signals showing that South Africans will not let their hard-won freedom be in vain has been the move by religious leaders who have established the Interfaith Forum of South Africa (TIFSA), which “expressed profound disappointment at the slow pace of bringing to book those identified by the Zondo Commission report, and they called on the government to expedite delivery of its recommendations”.
TIFSA will embark on a nationwide campaign of voter education. What South Africa needs is a conscious and conscientious citizenry to place centre stage and never ever again leave that stage to claim their lives back from the ruthless and heinous man-made poverty, unemployment and inequality.
On September 5 TIFSA announced that it would host a solutions-driven national convention. It will bring representatives of society from all walks of life to brainstorm as a nation and look for solutions.
Perhaps Ackerman’s life’s work and departure that was accompanied by robbery will not be in vain. It may guarantee the Bapedi wisdom that indeed “Kgaka Kgolo Sena Mabala, Mabala ana le Likhakana”.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a research associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished alumnus of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.