14 May 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
MY 88-year-old father has been supporting Manchester United, from Durban, since circa 1935, and he still does. My 25-year-old Israeli stepson became a Red Devil fan before he could speak English.
When, after 26 years of leadership, Alex Ferguson, dubbed "the ultimate manager", announced his retirement last week, there was a cascade of bouquets and no brickbats for the Scot who, like his team, had risen to the summit of sporting excellence as perhaps the greatest, and most valuable, brand in sport. Although the product of a hardscrabble upbringing in Glasgow’s Clydeside, and a committed Labour Party man, Ferguson’s redness in his politics and football allegiance did not preclude his adapting to the global requirements of modernising the "beautiful game". Indeed, last year, he gave a lecture in the citadel of capitalism, the Harvard Business School, where he preached the virtues he had so assiduously practised: the importance of openness and adaptability in making even the most venerable brands — countries, companies and professional football teams — fit for purpose. Not for nothing is Manchester United the first team in the world to be valued at more than $3bn.
Doubtless the "team that will never die" will continue winning under new manager David Moyes, but we can’t know whether he will achieve Ferguson’s success.
Quite how central human agency is to corporate success is underlined by the vertiginous fall of Apple. US financial analyst James Surowiecki laments that, until recently, the global technology leader was almost universally venerated. It was the most profitable hi-tech company in the world, with many predicting it would be the first trillion-dollar US company. But: "Since September, the stock has tumbled more than 35%, losing more than $200m from its market cap." Its sudden fall from grace is attributable to many reasons, not least the premature demise of its iconic founding genius, Steve Jobs.
The departure of Ferguson occurred when an event of less global significance but of some local importance was convened in Cape Town, the World Economic Forum on Africa. But, even here, the lessons of Ferguson’s legacy resonated. As Business Day editorialised, for Africa to maintain and extend its flavour-of-the month status with global investors requires dollops of vision and ambition and the discarding of outdated mind-sets: "If Africa is to use its resources to develop itself, it must discard its victim mentality and grasp the opportunity to maximise the benefit from the billions of dollars in investment the world is ready to deliver."
Does the present crop of continental leaders harbour the political equivalent of a Ferguson or a Jobs? I was recently rereading Martin Meredith’s magisterial account of our continent’s post-colonial history, The State of Africa. It commences with his account of the 1958 All-African People’s Conference, hosted by the first head of a decolonised African country, Kwame Nkrumah, in Accra. The key guests went onto become the leading lights of African liberation: Julius Nyerere, Joshua Nkomo, Kenneth Kaunda, Hastings Banda and Amilcar Cabral.
Yet, none of them — especially Nkrumah, whose megalomania resulted in his later ousting — achieved the sort of economic success and democratic governance today routinely predicted and practised on the continent. Some plundered their countries, or in the case of Nyerere, were personally incorruptible but practised ruinous economic grand experiments. The African leaders who gathered in Cape Town last week are of a lower wattage than their forebears. And the world in which they lead is vastly changed from the superpower conflict that formed the template, and often provided the cover, for their predecessors’ misgovernance.
One such moderniser today, who benefits from the investor search for yield rather than a Soviet or US quest for a Cold War ally, is Paul Kagame of Rwanda. His country recently floated its first dollar bond of $400m, or almost 6% of its annual output. From the ravages of genocide in 1994, he has constructed an economy that is the seventh fastest growing country tracked by the International Monetary Fund. But he is equally noted for his authoritarian streak. In contrast, Malawi’s President Joyce Banda is admired for her democratic instincts and poor economic prospects.
Here’s a thought: perhaps big-vision leadership is less important than empowered citizens. The spectacular growth of mobile telephony on the continent, for example, has brought social and economic goods within reach of one in two African homes. And social networking famously helped topple ageing North African dictators.
Global and country brands, like football teams, are augmented by great leaders. But you still need the players, the market and the fans to win the game.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA.