South Africa: Load Shedding – It’s not a new diet for lightweight wrestlers

“Load shedding.” It’s not a new diet for lightweight wrestlers, nor is it a technique for truckers trying to enter restricted highways.  It’s the almost daily episodic shut down of electrical energy to reduce the load on the beleaguered and inefficient grid.  South Africa’s infrastructure just can’t support its growth. Rich or poor, black or white, your lights go out and your restaurant is transformed into a romantic candlelit venue no matter its initial intent. Since traffic signals are also on the grid, guess what happens when you are on the road?  Sure there’s a website and an app to help you cope in anticipation and sometimes the information is even accurate.  What load shedding lasers into the darkness is that no matter the brightness of the African sun or exuberance of its heart synchronizing drums, South Africa is suffering at its core, the energy needed to power through the next round of development is waning and an injection of potential is sorely needed. 

Twenty-one years post-Apartheid, and the sweet bloom of youthful freedom and expectant optimism is fermenting into frustrated ambition, anger at perceived entitlement, unfinished integration and a description of democracy as a “discussion” not a reality. Faith in the current government is low, Mandela is missed. The parent in change has died and the kids aren’t fully ready to run the house. Does one return to truth and reconciliation and dig deeper to excise the cancerous cells of disrespect or is it time to turn more fervently to co-creating a better future?  Questions of personal responsibility, race, fairness and trust are readily expressed and I can attest to hearing the word “transformation” more often this week than ever before and that’s outside of the Leaders’ Quest community.

I first started visiting South Africa in 1997 as a researcher, oddly funded by Eli Lily in their efforts to help define psychiatric problems so they could sell the cure. As a speaker, an academic, and business consultant I have returned regularly over the last two decades. My first Leaders’ Quest trip was to South Africa in 2004 and I have facilitated  strategic meetings in South Africa  for INSEAD business school, Actis private equity  partners,  investors and their board,  and this week  the African leadership team of a multinational bank. For candor, colorful dress, booming voices, meetings begun with song and the music of multiple tribal tongues, South Africa is a sensual delight. Not only is the constitution new, the population is skewed to the young. Most are badly in need of education, skills development…and jobs. For the majority of black pupils, two-thirds of state schools have no library or computer, and over half of all students either have no textbooks or have to share the ones they have. Visits to the gentrified warehouse areas of Johannesburg reveal a thriving artisan food and arts arena and a bustling business for the small population of upwardly mobile middle class. Sitting on a Sunday afternoon sharing some lunch with my Indian colleagues, they remarked on how “Western” downtown Jo’berg appeared.  Ah, this was day one. 

As the week unfolds one hears blond, blue-eyed European looking individuals speaking…is that Zulu, Khoisan? Or another tribal tongue? The lilt of Afrikaans makes you wonder if you are hearing Dutch and indeed took a quick detour to Amsterdam.  When talk turns to incarceration, it’s not unusual to hear that rich and poor spent time in jail—for objecting to the Apartheid government, for criminal behavior or some small offense used as an excuse to clear you from the streets.

Many speak of the dualities in South Africa.  This includes struggle fatigue juxtaposed against the urgency to “get it right,”   and “make it better.” South Africa is a living laboratory experimenting in empowering multilayered identities, restoring self-esteem and demonstrating social forgiveness.  It’s a manic/depressive experience to be in South Africa depending on your focus. How does one speed the required change?  The African continent is generating creative solutions. After all M-Pesa, the ability to move money by mobile phone, was launched in Kenya and it is but one of the many examples of how banking is still critical to building an economy though the method by which currency is exchanged and financial services are delivered is in a period of great flux.  The emergent middle class and those endeavoring to enter the formal economy are thirsty for products that fit their reality rather than those “assumed” to be beneficial.  The established institutions need banking partners and the jury is out as to whom will be the country’s prom date.   Increased collaboration, sparking leapfrogging innovation and disruption – that’s why I was in town. It was daunting, exhilarating, and a privilege to be part of the conversation.

We worked closely with top banking executives, the majority of whom were black, and a significant number were female. For many, their pasts weren’t pretty. Telling stories, returning to their home townships with the executives whose families still live there, and opening up the discussion of bringing your past into work as you plan for the future was an exercise in honesty and trust.  In the streets there were protests against foreigners, not foreigners like me from the USA but rather immigrants from other African nations. We spent many hours looking at present trends, anticipated future realities and pockets of the future present today. Our team led immersive visits to community projects, talks with Uber drivers and radio personalities leading the “disruption.” We performed in plays with youth educators to teach 7-year-olds how to report domestic violence, and the list goes on.  In total we took 140 executives from across Africa to meet 42 carefully selected influencers in townships, courthouses and new businesses.  Preparations weren’t easy and included the dictate that we each review our routes with our security detail. It’s been a while since I had my own body guard for a day. 

I was so rattled from being safe that upon returning to the hotel I told my Melbourne bred partner that I needed to meditate.  Mind you meditation is not my current coping de jour.   My friend asked me if I was ever trained in mindfulness techniques and I made a quip about following the Guru Maharaji when I was 16 years old.  Guess what?!  All the way down there in Australia, he did also! How many people know about santsang?  Do you?  If I told you I received knowledge when I was in high school would you believe me? Any idea what that means?

Drunk on history, we made our way to the cocktail party our team was hosting to thank our many local supporters.  The venue was previously  an orphanage for Jewish children during the World Wars (it’s now on the grounds of a major insurance company).  An 80-year-old black vocalist set the mood and to our surprise her repertoire included traditional songs along with Bob Dylan and a rendition of “My Yiddusha Momma.”  Toss in discussions of “what do you love, what are your gifts and who are you responsible for?” circles that began with two minutes of silence and a final session that ended with bank execs directing thunderous claps of praise to demonstrate respect to colleagues across the room and you get a sense of my work week.

As for the weekend? A safari of course!  Our team set off to see elephants and lions and hippos and rhinos (and to have camp fires, pajama parties and too much wine).  Mission accomplished.  Our drum thumping, loudly singing, very friendly team included representatives from India, Nigeria, Australia, the US, the UK, Germany and Canada. The current list of where they are living is far more confusing.  We watched elephants in the rain, spotted a mom, dad and two baby lions and had breakfast with the zebras.  After an intense week of work, we giggled hard, enjoyed each other’s company and agreed with remarkable consistency on each other’s spirit animals. Who knew my colleagues thought I had so much in common with an Austrian Lipizzaner horse?  Who talks to their colleagues about spirit animals?  What is a spirit animal?  This much I know.  Africa land of biltong (dried beef), Amerula and ubuntu.  It’s not easy to leave and I am sure to go back.