24 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
From salvage maestro Nick Sloane to SABMiller CEO Alan Clark and the UK deputy prime minister’s strategy director, South Africans are making their mark, writes Tony Leon
SCENES of horror from the weekend’s attack by al-Shabaab terrorists on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi dominated all news media in London, where this column originates, on Monday.
An almost forgotten footnote in the evolution of the al-Qaeda terrorist franchise is that three years before 9/11 internationalised its bloody brand, it killed hundreds of people in simultaneous blasts at the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.
But before the dark and grim headlines from East Africa defined the news cycle here, I was rather struck by the more cheering acres of news coverage originating from news makers from the southern end.
Superlatives abounded concerning South African salvage master — perhaps maestro is a better fit — Nick Sloane. The normally staid Daily Telegraph gushed that the rugged head of the multinational rescue team that righted the wrecked Costa Concordia last week off the reef of the Tuscan island of Giglio was "a cross between Prince Harry and Russell Crowe".
Given that the ship is larger than the Titanic and that Sloane’s international team consisted of more than 500 engineers, divers and welders, the sheer scale of his achievement goes beyond hype.
Since he famously called for a beer and a braai after his heroic effort, it was perhaps apt that the previous Saturday, The Times of London ran a page-length feature on relatively newly appointed SABMiller CEO Alan Clark. The article noted the extraordinary fact that this $35bn revenue generating company, which employs 70,000 people across the world, is now headed by a clinical psychologist.
Dr Clark is certainly the only global CEO to have been an associate professor in cognitive development — a post he held at the University of South Africa in the late 1980s. The fact that the CEO of London-listed SABMiller, the world’s second-biggest brewer, is South African is a consequence not of South African chauvinism but of homegrown talent.
On the subject of homegrown talent, at a rather pricey (with our depleted currency, that’s not saying much) and salubrious saloon in Soho, I enjoyed a weekend reunion with my former political strategist Ryan Coetzee. He now sits at the elbow of Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister of Britain, whom Coetzee serves as director of strategy.
Back in South Africa, he designed and implemented every successful opposition project, from the "fight back" of 1999 to more recent strategies. When we met, Coetzee had freshly returned from Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party congress in Glasgow, where the leader emerged with enhanced authority, even though his personal and party numbers are flatlining at the polls at about 9% (about half of what the party obtained in the 2010 general election).
I thought the Liberals’ conference slogan of a "stronger economy, a fairer society" bore something of the Coetzee stamp, which he confirmed. As the junior partner in Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government, this is an attempt to jab at both the Tories, on the issue of social fairness, and Labour, on the grounds of economic competence.
But South Africa’s contribution to current political life in Britain washes across party boundaries. In a weekend interview, Labour leader Ed Miliband, who might end up as prime minister in 2015, paid his own debt of honour to past South Africans. He recounted how among the many visitors to his parents’ "new left" home in the 1980s, presided over by his famous Marxist academic father Ralph, were Joe Slovo and his wife, Ruth First.
In fact, the assassination of First in 1982 affected him deeply. In a speech in 2010, he noted: "Some people wonder about why I got to care about politics. When something like that happens, it teaches you at the age of 12 that some things you cannot walk away from. It teaches you that political causes matter."
From the serious to the sublime and the saloons, the South African influence here — a sort of reverse colonialism — is pervasive. A Saturday night spent in the obscure hamlet of Moretonhampstead in Dartmoor led to the discovery that "Karen of Bellville", as she introduced herself, presided over its only hostelry. Same again at a sumptuous gastro pub in the city of Wells, except here the South African duo hailed from Benoni. A visit to the memorable West End production of War Horse yielded the fact that the play’s quite extraordinary puppets were created by the South African Handspring Puppet Company, founded by four graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town.
Seated next to another well-known South African here at a Sunday lunch, Financial Times columnist Lucia van der Post (daughter of the famous Sir Laurens), I asked her why South Africans did so well in the UK.
"It’s no mystery," she said. "They’re not afraid of hard work and they’re talented."
A winning combination, then, at home and abroad.
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