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If I were Ramaphosa, I'd call these people
A growing economy needs a capable state. A capable state needs capable people.
By this time the story of Hendrik van der Bijl is old news. The visionary industrialist that founded Eskom, Iscor, and the Industrial Development Corporation, Van der Bijl can rightly be considered the father of South Africa’s industrialisation. (Read more about Van der Bijl in Chapter 27 of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom.)
Few, however, know how he obtained this influential position. After his PhD in Leipzig, Germany Van der Bijl moved to America where he found a job at Western Electric (later the Bell Telephone Company) in New York. There he developed technology that made a telephone connection between New York and San Francisco possible and wrote a textbook that would be used for decades in American universities.
But it was an article Van der Bijl wrote in 1919 – Scientific research and industrial development – that would change his fortunes, and the future of South Africa, forever. Jan Smuts, then prime minister, read his article and invited Van der Bijl to return to South Africa as science and industrial advisor in the Department of Minerals and Mining. The rest, as they say, is history.
South Africa today can benefit from a 21st century version of Hendrik van der Bijl. If I was in Ramaphosa’s shoes, I’d make a few phone calls…
Just like a century ago, South Africa today does not generate enough electricity. (For those not familiar with the situation: South Africa experiences daily blackouts, euphemistically called scheduled loadshedding.) Electricity – energy – is a necessary input into economic growth; with no energy, there can be no production. For that reason, Martin van Staden is the first person I will call. Van Staden has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Johannesburg and previously worked at Eskom. He is currently the Vice President of Design Engineering at X-energy, an American company that manufactures pebble bed nuclear power reactors. The programme he leads – the Xe-100 – builds 80 megawatt modular nuclear power reactors. Put four of them together, and you can easily produce 320 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a small city. X-energy is currently building such a reactor after receiving $2.5 billion from the American government. This safe, reliable, environmentally friendly and, importantly, decentralised way of generating power has great potential in South Africa, especially given our aging distribution network. Appoint Van Staden as an advisor to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and give him free reign to bring his technology to South Africa, perhaps as competition for Eskom.
The 51-year-old Tshilidzi Marwala was previously the Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and will in March be the new Vice Chancellor of the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan. The Cambridge-educated artificial intelligence expert made led a remarkable transformation of a traditionally slow-changing institution during his five years at UJ, implementing a required course on artificial intelligence for all students, climbing the research rankings from sixth to second place, and establishing the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Research, the Johannesburg Business School, and the Institute for Intelligent Systems.
Appoint Marwala as an advisor in the Department of Higher Education and Training with the explicit goal of preparing South African tertiary students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Niel Joubert’s excellent biography of Whitey Basson provides enough reasons why Basson should be high on Ramaphosa’s list. South Africa’s king of retail, who took Shoprite from 8 stores to becoming the largest retailer in Africa, can definitely apply his skills to several dysfunctional government entities. That is why I’d like to see him appointed as an advisor in the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, and help him turn all the struggling state institutions around, from South African Airways to Denel, the post office to Transnet. And it won’t even be difficult to convince him: he recently offered to do it for free!
It takes a special kind of person to build a multi-million dollar company from nothing, especially one that wants to compete in the fiercely competitive financial services industry. But that’s exactly what Katlego Maphai has done with Yoco. Making a payment at a restaurant? There’s a good chance you’re using a Yoco machine for your payment. This young CEO of a company valued at more than a billion rand could, of course, play a valuable role in the Department of Small Business Development. He clearly knows what it takes for small businesses to succeed, and the constraints that keep them from growing. But I would be even more ambitious: appoint him to sort out the mess in the Department of Home Affairs. If you have the ability to build the infrastructure to serve the financial needs of 200 000 entrepreneurs, then you surely have the ability to quickly and cost-effectively issue IDs, passports, and birth certificates at a few hundred branches nationwide.
The list can go on. Appoint a development economist in the Department of Economic Development; South African Taryn Dinkelman, professor of economics at Notre Dame, would be a good bet. Or recruit Stellenbosch University’s Tulio de Oliveira to the Department of Health. Or the entrepreneur and security expert André Pienaar to the South African Police Service. Or Naspers board member and economics of technology expert Rachel Jafta to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.
It is, of course, one thing to convince these exports to dedicate some of their time to help their country. It is another thing to keep on supporting them regardless of who is in charge. After Van der Bijl established Eskom in 1923, Jan Smuts of the South African Party lost the 1924 elections to the Pact government (a coalition of the National Party and the Labour Party). Despite the political change, Van der Bijl remained in his job and continued to implement his plans.
The challenges South Africa face at the start of 2023 are enormous. Most of them have their origins in a dysfunctional state. The good news is that the capacity to address these challenges exists. It depends, however, on the political will to act.