File photo: Reuters

Les Owen searches for the truth behind myths that surround SA. He hopes to inspire positive dialogue.


Les Owen is interested in the mass hysteria about witchcraft that swept through Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

During the panic 19 people were hanged, and another was pressed to death as the townsfolk seemingly lost their minds in fear of witchcraft.

To Owen, the trials serve as a warning: against the negative attitudes that run rampant in South Africa.

“I want to change the narrative in South Africa. There is a lot of good that goes unacknowledged,” he said.

Part of the problem, he believes, is something he calls “wrongology”: the idea that as much satisfaction is derived from talking about something that is wrong, as is gained from pointing to positive aspects of society.

That is something he is hoping to change.

Durban-based Owen is a management consultant, a professional negotiator, mediator and arbitrator.

He lectures at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s graduate school of business on the MBA programme, and is also a senior commissioner with the CCMA.

He has contributed to a book by Steuart Pennington, South Africa @ 20: For Better or for Worse?, unpacking myths that surround our country.



One of the more important psychological research experiments was that carried out by Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in 1971. He wanted to find out the extent to which the environment, the situation in which we find ourselves, affects our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.

He turned the University’s Psychology Department into four prison cells. Twelve volunteers were imprisoned, and 12 volunteers became prison guards. Zimbardo recorded what then took place.

Within two days the prison guards became tough, hard, stereotypical guards. The prisoners became prisoners in behaviour and attitude. On the second day, the prisoners rioted. The guards brutally attacked them with fire extinguishers. They locked the leader of the prisoners in the broom cupboard. They stripped the prisoners naked and forced them to go into solitary confinement.

Remember, the prisoners were all volunteers. They could leave the experiment at any time they wanted. None did so. They remained and became “real” prisoners.

They believed they were prisoners. The guards believed they were guards. The experiment was due to run for two weeks. Zimbardo stopped it after six days – he had to.

Zimbardo had shown that the environment in which we live directly affects our belief system, our attitudes and our behaviour.



Fast-forward to South Africa today. Many influential and prominent leaders regularly make the following observations: “South Africa is the most unequal society in the world”; “More than 25 percent of South Africans are unemployed”; “Our University standards are dropping”.

Not only do ordinary South Africans hear and read these statements, they become part of our narrative and we believe them to be true. Important decisions, both business and personal, are made in this context. The consequences have become part of our reality: people become dissatisfied; international rating agencies downgrade us; the rand weakens; workers became restless; and ordinary South Africans become gloomier.

Let’s look at three chapters in the book concerning our inequalities, our unemployment figures and our university standards.


3 “SA is the Most Unequal Society in the World”

The basis for describing South Africa as the most unequal country in the world is determined by the Gini Coefficient. This is the international standard for measuring the distribution of income in a country. Information on the Gini Coefficient can be found on the website The Gini Coefficient measures the distribution of something among a number of people. The higher the Gini Coefficient, the greater the inequality. Simply put, a figure of .01 shows a high level of equality, while .99 shows a high level of inequality.

The World Bank has a schedule whereby it publishes the Gini Coefficient of all countries, provided it receives the information. South Africa has a figure of 0.63. But look at the website carefully – the last figure for South Africa is for 2009. Counting the number of countries that show their figures for 2009, you will see there are 42.

We could conclude then that in 2009, out of the 42 countries for which the World Bank has figures, South Africa has the highest Gini Coefficient out of the 42.

There are about 232 countries in the world (depending on how one defines a “country”), 193 of which are members of the UN.

The Gini Coefficient calculation excludes all income received in the form of government grants.

In 2009, about 11 million South Africans received a government grant. By 2012, this had increased to 16 million.

South Africa is one of the countries spending the largest part of our GDP on social grants and social assistance, at 3.2 percent. Only Norway, Sweden and Denmark spend more at 4.2 and 4.4 percent. Taking the provision of social grants, free water, free sanitation and free electricity, and by allowing for personal income tax, our Gini Coefficient drops significantly.

So perhaps we are not the most unequal society in the world.


4 More than 25 percent of South Africans are Unemployed

We are told authoritatively by Stats SA that our unemployment figure is 25 percent. Let me quote from the chapter in the book which discusses unemployment in South Africa: “At Adcorp (South Africa’s largest employment services company and the country’s leading authority on labour market trends), we have reliable research that proves Stats SA’s official measurements of employment is to be questioned. While there may only be 12.96 million people formally employed, there is a total of 19.2 million people engaged in some or other form of economic activity, properly counting the informal, unofficial sector of the economy.

“According to Adcorp’s research, economic activity in the unofficial sectors, (6.19 million) very nearly equals the number of unemployed and discouraged people in the formal sector (6.43 million), which suggests – if the informal sector is fully accounted for – South Africa’s situation is quite different from what has typically been portrayed.

“The unemployment rate in the formal sector may well be 25.3 percent, but there is no question the rate of people totally excluded from any form of economic activity, including the informal sector, is possibly as low as 11 percent.”

Loane, the author, concludes: “We have looked at our ability to create jobs through one eye, that of the formal sector and the developmental state; we have totally underestimated the entrepreneurial spirit in the informal and second economy.

“Our previous measurement methodology has been flawed. There is a different picture out there and this has massive implications for policy formulation.”

Perhaps our real unemployment figures are much lower than the official figure of 25 percent. Think of the caddies at our 400 golf courses, car guards, illegal miners, etc.


5 “Our University Standards are dropping”

Again, I quote from the relevant chapter: “There has been considerable controversy over our university rankings in recent times. It is estimated that there are 20 000 universities globally. SA has 23 universities and universities of technology.

“We have seven that rank in the top 1 to 700 universities globally (top 3.5 percent) – UCT, Tukkies, Stellenbosch, Wits, Rhodes, UJ and UKZN. We have three universities that rank in the top 700 to 1500 (top 7.5 percent) – UWC, Unisa and NMMU. The rest rank between 2 000 (top 10 percent) and 10 000 (top 50 percent).”

Out of interest: “The US has 3 262 universities, hundreds of which rank in the bottom 50 percent. Likewise, the UK has 223 universities, 15 of which rank below the University of Venda (10 915)…

“Nigeria has 19 universities, the highest of which ranks 3 499 (University of Ibadan) and the lowest of which ranks 11 985 (Lagos State University).”


This research involves 62 094 academics and 27 957 employers from around the world.

So there are 10 of our 23 universities ranked within the top 7.5 percent of all universities in the world. Makes you think, doesn’t it?


* Owen is a management consultant, a professional negotiator, mediator and arbitrator.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.