Bonang Mohale’s 'Lift as you rise'
Quintessential African Life Manifest
Dr Reuel J Khoza
21 November 2018
1. INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
Cicero opines that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” To which St Ambrose adds, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” On this occasion – the launch of Bonang Mohale’s book “Lift as You Rise”, I choose to start by expressing my gratitude, our gratitude, to the person, the personality, the human, humane and humble factotum that is Bonang Mohale:
- First and foremost, I thank you Bonang for the opportunity to say something on this occasion, I am clearly just but one among a potential million.
- Rona ba thari entsho thank you for responding to the clarion call – sounded and silent – for Africa to define herself. A sagacious African proverb admonishes: Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter.” The narrative of the African lion’s roar in Lift as You Rise is lucid and unmistakeable.
- We applaud you for stridently climbing on to the centre stage of Corporate South Africa through inter alia, Otis Elevators, Shell South Africa and Business Leadership South Africa, and utilising those platforms to help define socio-economic and corporate South Africa in our own image.
- We hail you for pointing the way to effectively managing culture and tradition. As sons-in-law many of us tend to fall prey to being outlawed. You foreclosed on that: What you do for your parents, you do for your parents-in-law.
- In particular, we pay homage to you for your participant, transformational leadership in the community, in society and nationally. In brief, For Lifting as You Rise.
2. LIFT AS YOU RISE
The injunction to lift others as you yourself rise is widely understood and deeply felt in all our communities. It is an extension, of course, of the Ubuntu ethic that a person is a person because of other people, or as they say in Sesotho, Motho ke motho ka batho babang. Success in life may be personal as a result of hard work and initiative, but we are moved to ensure that others also benefit from our achievements. President Thabo Mbeki once said that ‘lift as you rise’ was a new paradigm for members of the Proudly South African community. Effort to market the country and its products abroad, he urged, would contribute significantly to eliminating the blight of poverty at home. The phrase was adopted by Nafcoc (The National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and is also used by successful African women to encourage entrepreneurs to mentor their sisters.
As a man of two worlds, African and Western, I have often had occasion to contrast ‘lift as you rise’ with the more familiar aphorism, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’. The first calls for a person to make a voluntary moral effort, the second sees rising tide as a force of nature, something that happens independently of morality. It seems it was President John F Kennedy who first brought a ‘rising tide’ into the public sphere. In a 1963 speech pledging to continue military support for Europe, he quipped: ‘As they say on my own Cape Cod, “A rising tide lifts all the boats.” Kennedy apparently also applied the proverb to defend a large dam against critics alleging that it was a ‘pork-barrel’ project for pals. The phrase soon became a touchstone of Wall Street wisdom. The richer bankers and brokers became, the more they could congratulate themselves on boosting world wellbeing. The converse is that a fast-withdrawing tide – as we have seen with the global recession of 2008-2009 – can wreck many boats on the rocks.
When the economy is performing well, everyone gains. When it falls, we all fall with it. This is a rather fatalistic way of looking at things, but is nevertheless something strangely comforting to Westerners in the idea that economics is like the tides, for which we bear no personal responsibility. We do, of course, bear responsibility. We all help to make the world we live in. Even if we are only minor functionaries in the machinery of business or government, we still hold a stake in the outcomes and should serve notice on decision-makers that they should be responsible and accountable. By the same token, if we have ascended the rungs, we should reach down to help others up and be responsible and accountable ourselves.
Lifting means empowering or as Bonang insists, emancipating. Rising means gaining power and prestige, but never – in terms of Ubuntu – forgetting where you came from. As a businessman and (I would hope) an objective observer of economic trends, I do realise that in recessionary times, businesses draw in their horns and are less likely to dispense largesse. Corporate and personal philanthropy are limited by the realities of the situation. But a crisis situation like the global recession should prompt organisations to put the interests of their communities first and their private interests second. It is true, as Jack and Suzy Welch said in a Businessweek article, that ‘you have to make money first to give it away’. Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO and master of leadership techniques, has experience on his side. It is also true, though, that unless you make a special effort in bad times to contribute to society – say by focusing on survival skills training for those who have been retrenched, and helping them to develop forms of mutual support – the business will gain less traction with its surrounding communities in the good times. It is not just a matter of riding the tides. It is a case of showing compassion, acting as if you care, and doing something practical to alleviate suffering.
Compassion is as important in corporate governance as profitability. The African humanist worldview impels us to regard community involvement as a central pillar of the well-led organisation. It is morally necessary and practically wise to spread benefits to stakeholders.
3. THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET TO THE BLACK INTELLIGENTSIA
The black intelligentsia tends to succumb to the tantalising temptation to ignore the demands of the masses and turn to self-enrichment instead. The critical mass of our intelligentsia needs to retune itself to the mission of true development and poverty alleviation. Strategies for development differ according to ideological positions and the evidence of success. Our leadership has tried various tacks. These include black economic empowerment through equity deals, incentives to spur entrepreneurship and innovation, large capital-intensive projects, broad-based black economic empowerment through skills development and affirmative procurement, and high-profile international collaborations in science and technology. All form part of the effort to transform the economy and place us on the path to equity and steady growth. Let us not forget that upliftment does not equate simply with socio-economic equalisation or gross statistics of per capita income. There is a lot more to quality of life and ‘development’ than that. Ultimately sustainable development is all about human development. The poor are growing in numbers and the country is still not on the high road to progress. We certainly do require physical and intellectual infrastructure – electricity, roads, schools, hospitals – but more than anything we need a social revolution to realise the benefits of democratic freedoms. The populace has to regain the human dignity that exploitation and oppression have stripped away, and begin to believe in their full potential as human beings capable of directing their own destiny.
Jack Welch predicated his success in corporate business on the philosophy ‘Control your destiny or someone else will’. South Africa is a harbinger of this philosophy and practice in politics in the personal leadership of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.
A nation may produce what Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist theorist, termed ‘organic intellectuals’ or middle-class scholars who thrive to maintain close links with those they identify as their communities. This is an interesting definition because it recognises that most educated people are middle class (or bourgeois, as Gramsci termed them). This does not necessarily make their affiliations middle class – many can, and indeed do, identify with the poor, the wretched of the earth, and take up the intellectual struggle on their behalf. Certainly, the leading intellectuals in African liberation movements saw themselves as representatives of the oppressed masses even if they personally enjoyed the privileges of education and more comfortable lifestyles.
Sobukwe aptly captured and eloquently articulated the role of the intelligentsia in a speech of the Completats’ Social at Fort Hare in 1948: True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character and fearlessness, and above all a consuming love of one’s people.
Perhaps what has happened since liberation is that the temptations of status and luxury have overwhelmed the social conscience of many an erstwhile champion of the people.
Intellectuals by and large provide the thought-through leadership of society: connecting ideas with deeds. They ground morality and political strategy in patterns of understanding that give meaning and purpose to social action. They expound principles. They fashion programmes. They dwell on problems and find concepts and words to suggest the solutions. Intellectual activity may appear like a selfish and withdrawn exercise if the intellectual is the retiring type. In Africa we expect intellectuals to be engaged in dialogues with their fellow men and women, whether rich or poor, educated or not. In other words, we regard intellectuals as the compass-bearers of our day and age, the voices of our communities, and the standard-bearers of our causes.
4. THEMES WE MAY CARE TO WRITE ABOUT
Contemporary phenomena that yell for attention, cogitation, reflection and capturing in writing include:
- Corporate Agglomeration and unbundling – cases in point, Anglo-American Corporation and Old Mutual.
- Exponential growth, internationalisation and corporate ethics, the Steinhoff Case.
- The rise, demise and resurrection of the African Bank.
- Pioneering African Corporations at the Bleeding Edge, Nail, Rail
- Eyesizwe to Exxaro: Genesis, growth and resilience.
- African Rainbow Minerals and the X-Factor in the establishment and expansion of the Motsepe Corporate Empire.
- State-owned Enterprises: Zeniths, Nadirs and the Developmental State Question.
- South African Banking Industry success and the innovation challenge.
- The phenomenal success of Discovery.
- We Blacks have to decipher, extract and codify lessons from corporate and political South Africa as trends and megatrends unfold.
Yes indeed the world is now a neighbourhood. South Africans are well-advised to learn lessons from global leadership and management. However, we must insist on the ending of America-centric, Eurocentric, even Sino-centric thinking. We must insist on the emergence and rapid development of Afri-centric leadership thinking. That means that our leadership style should seek to employ the advice, skills, technology and resources of others for its own ends and to its own chosen destination, and not to serve the agenda of those whose designs and intent are inimical to our progress and prosperity. The leadership that shall make Africans succeed must be African in outlook, orientation and foresight. The prism through which we must look at both the definitions of problems and the resolutions of those problems must be African. Those who support Africa can help and encourage us, but in the final analysis, Africa will be the instrument of her own salvation.
It is through her transformational leadership that Africa will transform herself, as articulated inter alia in Bonang Mohale’s Lift as You Rise. A leadership that understands that the success of other Africans does not diminish its own success but adds to the good of the commonwealth. We ought to diligently pursue an Africa that redefines the term emergent from a notion of condescension and derision to a term of economic, political and cultural vibrancy, and technological prowess.
Authorship and Authenticity have essential commonality. In one significant sense authenticity is self-authorship. Self-authored people are authentic, real, substantive. Those authored by others tend to be imitations-personae, human flotsam in a sea of circumstances. It is imperative that we strive to know ourselves, define ourselves, recognise and articulate our sense of destiny as a nation, as a region, as a continent.
Bonang Mohale, as they say in the classics, you have come a long way. All the way from Etwatwa near Benoni, via Katlehong, through to Wits Medical School, Otis Elevators, Shell Oil, BMF and now Business Leadership South Africa, an odyssey characterised by defining moments and significant milestones. Your corporate leadership roles as CEO of Otis Elevators and Executive Chairman of Shell Southern Africa exploded several myths and stereotypes for those with questionable perceptions of Black Business Leadership.
In Lift as You Rise you share and dispense leadership and managerial nuggets and pearls of wisdom like an African Sage: mellow, seasoned and sagacious. Those who have yet to read the book are encouraged to do so without delay. It is authentic and bursting with empirical leadership observations.
Of you, Bonang, Confucius – the Chinese philosopher who championed personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity, would have had this to say: “There are three marks of a superior man: being virtuous, he is free from anxiety; being wise, he is free from perplexity; being brave he is free from fear.”
Having known you for approximately three decades I can attest to your virtuous character, the wisdom that frees you from perplexity and the courage that frees you from fear.
Your revitalisation of BMF during your presidency of that hallowed organisation; your catalytic, transformative influence on Business Leadership South Africa, an organisation that some used to perceive as an elite congregation of self-serving, elite white corporations, your transforming BLSA into an embodiment of conscientious corporate citizens, your practical obsession with other-centredness and the development of human capital; your bold attack on corruption and your courage to speak truth to power; all these and more, position you as a living legendary leader fully deserving of being listened to and followed.
Thank you for behaviourally heeding Robert J McCracken’s admonition that “The world is not perishing for the want of clever or talented or well-meaning men. It is perishing for the want of men of courage and resolution who, in devotion to the cause of right and truth, can rise above personal feeling and private ambition.”
Bravo for writing and publishing Lift as You Rise at a time when our beloved country sorely needs sound leadership.