Often, what you see on the surface of a situation is really just the symptom of a bigger problem, not the problem itself. To really remedy the situation, you must work backward and go deeper to get to the cause of the problem.
I was reminded of this in February, when I took a trip to South Africa. Ahead of the trip, I mentioned my upcoming travels to several people, many of whom inquired whether I was concerned about the water shortage there.
Sure enough, when I arrived, I discovered that there were severe restrictions on water consumption in Cape Town. There were lines to obtain drinking water in some places and fines imposed for consuming above your allotment.
What didn’t make sense to me right away is the fact that Cape Town is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. Why not build a desalinization plant and produce all the water you would ever need? That is a very logical approach, but it’s not that simple. To really get to the heart of a problem like this, you have to consider the political system and the people behind it.
For whatever reason, the people in power could not or had not designed a plan to put a plant in place producing the needed resource and eliminating this issue, at least in the short term. This is not to say that such a solution shouldn’t also be tied to some longer-term solution to replenish this resource naturally, but it was obvious that an immediate fix was needed.
People who live in South Africa and those, like me, who visit from around the world, marvel at the many assets and resources that abound in South Africa. I had the opportunity to go on safari for a few days, and the sights were breathtaking. The vastness of the tracts of land set aside for animals to live and thrive in their natural habitat is beyond words. The wonders are too many to name – the natural beauty of Table Mountain, the spectacular ride along the coast from Cape Town to Cape Point, the abundance of mineral resources unparallel to anywhere else in the world.
But given all the good things about South Africa, the country and its people face tremendous challenges, challenges they may not be able to overcome. While I was there, the sitting President, Jacob Zuma, resigned facing charges of corruption. Eighty-five per cent of South Africa’s population is black. Likely, South Africa’s future leaders should be black to represent the majority of the population and will need to be prepared to lead.
Another thing I did in Cape Town was visit Robin Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 28 years. On an earlier trip to South Africa, I purchased a copy of Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” I was so impacted by his struggle and his ultimate ability to forgive his white oppressors. It was a true inspiration. He led his country out of apartheid and into democracy. Those changes called to question everything that had previously been in place.
Also while in Cape Town, I spent an evening in a local township called Langa, where I also had dinner. Langa is home to 80,000 black people. Townships were something created by the apartheid regime to keep black residents under control and “out of the way” of wealthy whites.
In fairness, black people had previously lived in tribal villages and were drawn to the “opportunities” in the cities, and the most expedient solution was townships. My wife and I visited a number of housing options, from communal to informal to an extremely modest apartment where we had dinner. We visited a local shebeen (pub), where we sang folk songs and drank homemade beer from a pail.
At dinner – which involved five of us sitting on chairs in the combination kitchen/dining and living room – we had chicken, rice and vegetables all prepared on a hot plate. After dinner, we talked politics – South Africa and U.S.
The challenge in doing business in South Africa is what’s referred to as “black empowerment.” Essentially, if you want to do business there, at least 35 percent of your company must be black-owned. Black owners aren’t required to purchase the equity or possess the technical qualification to execute the role they are given within the company.
While I understand that the idea behind that is redistribution of wealth, which certainly needs to happen, those concessions would be difficult to make and also run a for profit business. I am not sure that push for redistribution of wealth will be successful using this particular approach.
Like the water issue in South Africa, democracy and equality face challenges stemming from a long-standing system of apartheid. South Africa may be, indeed, be running out of water but that in and of itself is a fixable problem. Some of the deeper issues behind the water shortage are going to be a lot harder to solve.
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