A man walks down a beach and sees thousands of starfish washed up. It will not be long, and they will all be dead. As he walks along the waterline, he occasionally bends over, picks one up and gently puts it back in the water.
“What are you doing?” asks a bemused passer-by. “Why are you wasting your time? There is no way you can save all of them.”
“Ah,” says the man, bending over to scoop up yet another starfish, “but I can help this one. Once it is back in the water, it will have to fend for itself. But at least it has a chance.”
South Africa, for at least half of its population is a miserable place to live. With unemployment running at 43%, no end in sight to electricity shortages, the economy tap-dancing on the edge of another recession, and investors wary of committing capital to projects in a market with so much uncertainty – the outlook is grim and the presidential platitudes of the State of the Nation Address on Thursday meaningless. SA (South Africa) is not the most miserable place on earth but its far worse than it should be. It carries the curse of not being as bad as it could be but never being as good as it should be.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there are other countries that are worse off – but it is not a club we should aspire to join.
The Misery Index, yes there is such a thing, measures economic conditions by adding the unemployment rate and the inflation rate; a concept created by U.S (United States). economist Arthur Okun in the 1970s. This was a decade in which surging oil prices led to stagflation – where there was little, or no growth coupled with high inflation.
That index suggests Zimbabwe with its 200% inflation rate is likely to be the worst place to be this year, followed by Venezuela, Lebanon, Argentina, and Syria. The five are characterised by a mix of being run by despotic leaders, being subjected to failed socialist economic experiments and two have been embroiled in full-blown civil war for extended periods.
South Africa has one of the worlds’ highest unemployment and inequality rates, but thanks to SA Reserve Bank independence and its inflation targeting regime which requires the Monetary Policy Committee to keep inflation between 3-6%, at least keeps most prices in check most of the time. These indices are imperfect. For what it’s worth Bloomberg during the pandemic put in the SA economy as the third most miserable in the world.
All this global negativity toward South Africa and our own lived experience of the country as crime levels rise in response to increased levels of despondency and hopelessness amidst ongoing state failure is causing many to give up on the future here.
There is plenty of reason for despondency.
Government does what government does. There are pockets of excellence and despite the pervasive negativity in the country, there are tiny pockets of hope in the preliminary stages of some criminal prosecutions for corruption, South Africa’s finances despite the huge constraints on the economy are improving and the private sector continues despite the negative environment in which it operates, to find ways through the morass of red tape and frustration.
(Too) slowly but surely there is a tacit acknowledgement that what got us into this mess will not get us out, hence a stealthy privatisation of once-exclusively public services is happening, from electricity provision via the long overdue licencing of independent power producers to partnerships between the private sector and entities like Transnet too.
Most of us feel powerless in the face of so much abject misery that surrounds us daily. Other than exercising a vote every five years and making regular contributions to a charity or two – can individuals have a positive impact in a dysfunctional environment.
Over the past decade or so I have watched and given some oxygen to a project I admire hugely.
Financial adviser and director at Galileo Capital Warren Ingram has written three books over the past decade all on helping individuals make better financial decisions, giving them the tools to better manage their money and lessons on how to diversify globally. The books: Become Your Own Financial Adviser; How to Make your First Million, and Global Investing Made Easy are all widely available and have changed the lives of people who have read them and acted on the lessons they teach.
Warren and his wife Vanessa started the Serendipity Trust and initial funding came from the royalties of his books. The idea was that it should provide hope, even if only to a handful of children with a leg up. Warren and Vanessa know they cannot fix education, but they can help some children shape a better future for themselves than might otherwise have been possible. The bursary program looks to assist young people for as long as they need or want it, provided they are enthusiastic participants in academia, sport, and cultural activities. They do not need to perform at the highest level but must give of their best.
Last week Warren sent this mail and with his permission; here is an extract.
“…Serendipity is thriving, and we do not need anything – I just want to share some good news…we are now supporting 5 young people a year and have the necessary funding to help all of them through their remaining school and/or Varsity careers.
We have two boys in school and three young women at Varsity. As a reminder, we try to choose the children who are hard workers but not academic or sporting stars. Some of them have really flourished, one of the young women at Varsity finished at the top of her class last year (first year Varsity). Before we met her, she had obtained Varsity entrance to her chosen universities and then her dad died, and her mom lost her job. Mom and daughter moved in with granny in a tiny flat and started waitressing to feed the family. Now she is studying part time, working in an office as a receptionist and she is flourishing. Her mom is working again so the pressure is easing for this family.
One of the schoolboys has suddenly grown into a physical specimen of note and might be a provincial rugby player next year – he was tiny when we met him, so sport was not in his future. His family imploded two years ago, and the school was really worried about him, they asked us for help.
Having Serendipity support him combined with his growth spurt seemed to give him the confidence he needed, and he is a different kid now. While his mom is struggling, his dad has stepped up and the boy is doing much, much better. Serendipity is doing well with donations; we already have enough money for all our obligations to these five children and I am working on another book to keep things healthy.”
You cannot be a South African and not worry about the future and what it holds for generations of young people – that however is not enough – nor is the fact that you are a diligent taxpayer who is perfectly compliant. As infuriating as it is – there must be more we can all do, even if it is to help one other person.
The trades union movement in the 1980’s had a wonderful mantra: “each one, teach one.” If you were lucky enough to have an education, it was beholden on you to share your gift with others.
As far as Serendipity is concerned, it does not solve the education problem or scrape the surface of inequality, injustice, or any of the plethora of societal problems that exist. It also does not sit on the side-lines of the local crisis and moan. It gets involved. It helps the five, who in turn may help five, who in turn, may just help five.