Monday, May 20, 2013

The unacceptable ambassador

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20 May 2013 | Jarred Myers | Fin 24 

I HAD the opportunity to chat to former leader of opposition and DA stalwart Tony Leon about his recent stint as ambassador to Argentina. 

Sitting in a leafy Johannesburg suburb, we discussed current events in light of his recent biographical work The Accidental Ambassador.

As ambassador Leon maintained a balanced budget, received back-to-back clean financial audits, completed performance reviews and expended funds for their intended purpose.

He also managed to increase South African exports to Argentina by 80%, no mean feat in a militantly anti-import country, but in so doing he was categorically an unacceptable ambassador for South Africa and was prematurely yanked back home before he could further tarnish the nation’s image with such flagrant displays of competence.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading the book – both on a personal and professional level – but for me at least, my fascination with Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay is pedestrian at most.

My interest lay in exploring what Harvard professor and management guru Clay Christensen calls associational thinking, or the cross-pollination of solutions in one sphere to another unrelated sphere: in this case what take away applications could be gleaned from Argentina for South Africa.

As I've learnt, there are surprising similarities between our two nations on many levels including population size, economic stature and resource dependency. But what I found even more intriguing is that Argentina far and away surpasses South Africa in terms of corruption, state embezzlement and labour union interference.

This realisation of Argentina’s superiority in state malfeasance piqued my interest in practical applications for South Africa.

As it happens, at the turn of the twentieth century the Argentine economy was larger than that of Brazil. This seems hard to fathom in light of the current situation, where Brazil’s economy is four times larger.

Is Nigeria the next Brazil?

My thoughts immediately moved towards comparison between South Africa and Nigeria – could it be that in 50 years’ time, the Nigerian economy will be four times larger than South Africa’s?

I swiftly plotted available data, which I have displayed below.


It is clear that Nigeria and South Africa are very close in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) output over the past 50 years. What is striking is the similarity between this tandem movement and that of the graph below, indicating the same metric for Argentina and Brazil over the first 50 years of the twentieth century.

What is more astounding is the graph below, which indicates Brazil’s break-out where its growth was turbocharged and followed an almost exponential trajectory, whereas Argentina plodded along with stagnation the norm and growth spurts the exception - leading to the current divergence.


Apparently, there are more than adequate lessons to be learned for South Africa from a country which has so deftly and consistently managed to screw up its economy and hamper its competitiveness.

The metaphor which best describes the situation is ironically that of the flightless cormorant which the author encountered on a trip to the far-flung Galapagos Islands.

The bird, not very different in appearance from our locally found cormorant, cannot fly at all – and it is with good reason, because it has no need to do so with abundant fish supplies. Along with no land predators, this bird adapted its wings and muscles for swimming rather than flying.

This flightless cormorant aptly describes the governments of both South Africa and Argentina: neither has any natural predators with safe voting majorities, so no need to pay no more than lip service to democracy; both are stocked with such abundant natural resources that there is scant reason to learn to fly and, appropriately, both have evolved into the flightless democracies with which we are saddled.

Where the parallels diverge, however, is that South Africa has depleting resources in its mineral wealth, whereas Argentina with its 20 feet of topsoil provides enough food to feed half a billion people. It continues to do so despite its myopic leadership, and in so doing has a far more sustainable pillage strategy than our own.

The way forward

So how does South Africa follow the Brazil trajectory rather than Argentinian economic malaise?

The book offers some words to the wise best summarised by an interaction between the author and former US president Bill Clinton.

“Clinton suggested that the only way to address the myriad challenges and crisis was to stay focused on what he termed ‘the future business’ and not to be enthralled by the past.”

Tony emphasised that what the South African government needs to do in order to turn the country around is well documented and understood, thanks to the efforts of armies of consultants and advisers.

So it is not lack of clarity which inhibits South Africa from focusing on “the future business", rather it is the political will to make tough decisions and to implement these proposals which is sorely lacking.

I was privileged to attend one of the Argentina World Cup games in Soccer City in 2010 and vividly recall the impassioned chants of ‘vamos Argentina!’ or 'go Argentina!'. Unfortunately, as is well understood in the realm of kicking balls into the net, it takes more than well-intended encouragement to score goals.

Perhaps that is the apt take away message for South Africa’s leaders.

- Fin24

*Jarred Myers is a resources strategist and can be followed on Twitter on @JarredMyers. Opinions expressed are his own.

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