Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that we should ‘unlock economic potential and create a Silicon Valley,’ at the 4IR digital economy summit. 4IR. That’s pretty cool terminology for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Andrew Human, CEO Loeries Africa and Middle East, asks: are we on the right path to be the Silicon Valley, or the Big Apple of Africa?
What do Apple, Google and SpaceX have in common? They are all founded by immigrants. Steve Jobs is the son of Abdulfattah al Jandali, who immigrated to the United States from Syria. Sergey Brin immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union at the age of 6. And then of course, there’s Elon Musk, who left Pretoria when he was 17.
New York City is a talent magnet. If you throw a stone, you’ll hit someone who came to town with their dreams in a suitcase. From any small town in America, if there is a kid who can play the guitar well, then that kid packed her guitar, got on a bus and headed for New York. More than America, people with a dream, and talent, from across the globe, make great effort to get themselves to New York. Waiters have dreams of appearing on Broadway, of seeing their writing in the New York Times, listing their software company and taking Wall Street by the horns. Let’s be brutally honest here, most young South Africans – black and white – would love the opportunity to work in the United States.
This is accelerated evolution. Natural selection at pace. The best people from every little pocket across the globe get concentrated in a small space. The A Team. To share ideas, to make magic, to create things that never existed. Let’s go back to those three immigrants. Apple is the world’s first Trillion Dollar Company. Google dominates the internet, yet it didn’t exist a few years ago. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the first commercial company sending rockets to space.
These three immigrants haven’t taken employment from anyone – they are part of the strongest economy in the world, and they have created millions of jobs. I think it would be great if Johannesburg could become the New York City of Africa. Or as President Ramaphosa suggested, a Silicon Valley.
But, I know in the creative advertising industry there are zero foreigners in leadership positions in South Africa. Zero. In comparison, every leading city in the world has a creative department made up of foreigners. New York ad agencies aren’t American. Neither are London agencies English.
A pointed example is the topic of Manuel Borde’s talk at the upcoming DStv Seminar at the Loeries in August, ‘Mom, I’m moving to the Middle East. Forget about everything you think you know about the Middle East, as we break cultural stereotypes and deep dive into a market that has been heavily influenced by creatives from all corners of the world.’ He is, in fact, rubbing it in our noses, as there are many talented South Africans working in Dubai. But how many people from Dubai are working in South Africa?
Often I hear people from the middle classes criticising people from the townships for attacking foreigners. Tut-tutting and shaking their heads at how incomprehensible this is. Is it really? We are not any different in the leafy suburbs and listed corporations. We just use BEE instead of a sharpened machete. A Kenyan rising-star won’t be hired. Neither will a Nigerian designer or a Malawian copywriter. They are worth nothing on the BEE points system. May as well hire a white male for the good they’ll do you.
Foreigners are ostracised from the corridors of business. Don’t bring your talent here. Your ideas of innovation and your start-up company. Stay where you are, that’s our policy. Closed for Business. How can we possibly have aspirations to be the next New York City, the next Silicon Valley, when we don’t have the very first thing required: a welcoming approach to foreigners?
Can we really hope to succeed as the B Team? Made up of everyone who didn’t leave the country, and with no infusion of foreign thought leadership? Let’s compare it to a sports team. What made the British Premier League successful is the fact that they have attracted the most talented players from across the globe. The same goes for cricket’s Indian Premier League. The top teams have the top players – it’s as simple as that. You cannot have a B Team and expect to beat the A Team – that is just nonsense, and we need to move beyond the closed little island we are marooned on.
I know we have a wound. I am not denying this or denying that we have a lot to fix and transform. But this scar, this scab, needs to heal. And we need to nourish it to allow new growth. From the severed and mutilated stump of the tree, we need to allow new shoots to grow. We want the next Elon Musk, Sergei Bin and Steve Jobs here. We want their ideas, their companies, and the millions of people they will employ. We want to be the A Team and open for business.