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It’s a new world out there: A must to rise to the challenge

WE live in a world of rapid geopolitical and socio-economic change, impacted by technological innovation, and driven by economic inequality and ideological discourse. It is a world in which we are witnessing the birth of new human aspirations, new ways of living, new roles and relationships, new forms of production, and new forms of power.

Francis Petersen

Although Covid-19 has created more uncertainty for our future and disrupted all aspects of human life, it provides a time for new opportunities to arise and for the horizons of what is possible, to expand.

We need a world that is fairer, safer, more stable, secure, and that can prosper, underpinned by the values of democracy, free speech, and rule of law.
Globally, protectionism and populism are on the rise, and they often win the public opinion contest. We have seen the failure or inefficiencies of institutions of global governance, finance, health, and trade — they are important, but clearly need reform and more ambition. Global leadership is now needed more than ever.

Even before Covid-19, the South African economy found itself in a recession, with an unemployment rate exceeding 30% in the first quarter of 2020. The pandemic continues to impact negatively on economic activity in South Africa and around the world — unemployment is rising, businesses are under pressure, and public finances are being stretched.

We need to reimagine a South Africa where the economy is inclusive, has a policy framework that will promote investment, and has a conducive environment for constructive social dialogue between business, labour, community, and government.

In fact, innovative leadership in the different sectors of the economy is an essential requirement, not only to rebuild the economy, but to make it competitive.

Although governments across the world have provided massive stabilisation packages, primarily to flatten the Covid-19 infection curve as well as to prevent economic meltdown, one would argue that real economic growth and development will have to come from the private sector, industry, and commerce. However, Covid-19 has shown that the private sector, industry, commerce, and government should co-create such a development and economic growth path.

It is heart-warming and encouraging that Business Unity South Africa, Business for South Africa, and government are engaging in this regard, but much urgency is required for economic recovery and the creation of new jobs. There cannot be a continual adversarial relationship between government and the private sector — there are certain areas where the government will need to take the lead in terms of development and growth (supported by the private sector), and there are others where the government will need to work with the private sector (they take the lead) to effect growth.

In a detailed set of conversations with CEOs and executive members from the different sectors of the economy in South Africa to assess how they are re-imaging their business models and/or sectors in which they operate post-Covid-19, it is clear that collaboration (including lateral engagement across different distinct sectors of the economy) and co-creation are at the top of their minds.

However, two sets of principles seem to be non-negotiable: doing more with less, and doing good while doing business, underpinned by a green agenda. Both these principles have brought to the fore digital futures and societal impact as key drivers for an innovative and sustainable private sector.

Covid-19 has, in fact, accelerated the digital economy, both from a healthcare and social inequality perspective. As the pandemic has promoted social solidarity, business and the private sector will continue to place a high premium on societal impact and sustainable community development.

Business and the private sector are using technologies associated with digital futures to focus on smart mining, precision agriculture, individual healthcare, online logistics, financial solutions, and the promotion of business/organisational innovation.

Digital technologies and transformations are used to improve processes, to increase productivity (at lower costs), and to enhance the safety and health of the work environment. Digitisation in education has seen face-to-face blending with remote and online teaching and learning in an effort to provide a flexible and more stimulating environment in which to learn.

However, investment in digital infrastructure is critical so that more equality will exist to take advantage of this opportunity. Surely, the government, the telecommunication companies, educational leaders, and philanthropic organisations can develop a roadmap and an investment strategy for the proper establishment of digital infrastructure in the southern African region?

The workplace, the work itself, and the appropriate skills required will undoubtedly change in a digital, green, and circular economy.
Covid-19 has challenged organisational leaders to reflect on their workplaces and spaces in order to critically assess the work-life balance of their employees, and to investigate more flexible human resource models.

Although physical meetings and engagements cannot be totally replaced, virtual engagements will increase in frequency – the psychology of optimally leading virtual teams (locally and globally) need to be understood. Models for working from home or remotely, secondment of staff across economic sectors, and the dual appointment of staff must be done with more ease and confidence.

In terms of the provision of appropriate skills for the future workplace, a vibrant relationship between institutions in the post-school system and business, private sector, and industry is not a “nice-to-have” — it is essential.

Universities and TVETs should strive towards more inclusive and flexible curricula that reflect the realities of the private sector, industry, commerce, and the future world of work. Advisory boards for academic departments at universities and TVETs, composed of representatives from these sectors, with traditional research engagements and the offering of short learning programmes (skilling and reskilling) with these sectors, are the type of ecosystem that will not only provide adaptable skills, but will promote innovation for the economy.

Furthermore, a student entrepreneurial value-chain approach, focusing on sensitisation, graduate attributes, exposure to entrepreneurs, incubation, introduction to proper networks, and business development, could be a deliberate institutional design to maximise an entrepreneurial culture among graduates.
Covid-19 has shown the interconnectedness of our world, and some could argue that globalisation has increased the pace of the spread of the virus.

As governments have closed their borders during the different phases of lockdown in an attempt to flatten the Covid-19 infectious curve, countries were inwardly focused, and needed to be innovative to ensure the survival of their respective economies. This has stimulated localisation through new product development and improved the industrial competitiveness of local production.

It also stressed the importance of extracting opportunities along the full value chain, with a particular focus on beneficiation. This can clearly influence supply chains, specifically from state entities, and e-commerce platforms should be actively promoting locally manufactured goods.

It is also an opportunity to green the economy, and business and private sector organisations have made stringent commitments in this regard. This is not arguing for localisation against globalisation — in fact, they should reinforce each other.

Through the principles of doing more with less — and doing good while doing business — chief executives and executive managers from the different sectors of the South African economy have committed themselves towards meaningful collaboration and co-creation of solutions with government, other sectors of the economy, universities, science councils, and civil society.

New partnerships need to be forged, and existing partnerships need to be strengthened. The government must consider incentivising such relationships, for example, by introducing matching grants on strategic, growth-oriented research and development.

As Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American, recently said: “South Africa needs to turn goodwill and good ideas into action on the ground to revive its economy — and business must be part of the solution (and conversations), while any ANC or other factional interests must be put aside (for the greater good of the people).”

It seems as if South African (and multinational) business, private sector, and industry have re-imagined or are in the process of re-imagining their respective business models to be stronger and sustainable post Covid-19.

The question is whether South Africa’s political machinery has gone through a similar re-imagination process? DM
Professor Petersen is rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State.

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