Executive PRspective

I Don’t Believe What I Just Saw

Last year at this time, HKA’s Executive PRspective described my altered views after I journeyed to Machu Pichu and the Galapagos Islands. I considered it a life-changing experience, as I ticked two items off my bucket list.

My life has changed again, as one more bucket list item just bit the dust. After three weeks in South Africa, including a brief stay in Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls, my head is filled with as many visions as my cell phone is overflowing with photos. As I write, I struggle to find one over-arching theme, so, I will do as I did last year and offer a few thoughts that have risen to the surface.

Getting Better, but . . .

I would be remiss not to reference South African race relations. Of course, I was well-aware of South Africa’s horrific Apartheid history and the tremendous influence Nelson Mandela had on ending racist laws in 1994. But I did not know what to expect, 25 years later. Indeed, laws no longer restrict black citizens (who make up about 80 percent of the population). That said, it appeared that unofficial segregation is the order of the day, with blacks and whites mostly living in different areas. Daily life for most black citizens is far tougher than for the white population. Unemployment is high and educational opportunities remain limited. But I met black women business owners, in Johannesburg and Cape Town, who are thriving and expressed encouragement. We visited the Apartheid Museum and Robben Island and Constitution Hill, both places where black political prisoners were housed in dreadful conditions. Lessons from the past are not being swept under the carpet.  In the end, I left with Bob Dylan’s lyrics in my head: The times they are a-changing. Just as the U.S. is obsessed with politics today, the same is true in South Africa. The streets were filled with political posters and everyone was talking about the May 9 national election – some with hope of further positive change and some with dread. Just like here.

Environmental Awareness & Pride

Over and over, I observed a keen and authentic sense of environmental awareness and pride. South Africans value their natural resources – the land, the sky, the water, the animals. I heard a lot about sustainability. And everyone recycles. I saw solar panels and wind farms. Some restaurants declined to dispense plastic straws. A drought rivaling California’s made everyone keenly aware of limiting water use. They are justifiably proud of their beautiful flora, such as the King Protea, the national flower, and forests filled with centuries-old towering trees.  There are both national and private wild animal preserves, throughout the country, where they conscientiously manage the herds while striving to protect them from poachers and big game hunters. There is the magnificent southernmost seascape along the Garden Route, the sprawling wine farms in the winelands and the tip of the Cape where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. The natural beauty is awe-inspiring and it’s easy to see why tourists flock. I left relieved South Africans are eager to hold onto these natural treasures.

The Animals

What can I say? Almost close enough to touch, we had to hold ourselves back! Sitting in open-air jeeps, we oohed and ahhed over elephant families with tiny babies swinging their little trunks, cheetahs with full tummies lazing on the road, wild dogs with vividly painted coats chewing impala bones, regal male lions posing lazily, skittish zebras, gawky giraffes and so much more. Our four-day safari could have gone on forever as far as I was concerned!

First World, Third World

I was surprised that South Africa is a sophisticated first-world nation and a struggling third-world country – at once. I expected to see poverty and outdated technology.  Indeed, we did see this in certain places we visited. The remnants from the Apartheid era are obvious. But I was surprised at the technological sophistication I witnessed, in some cases surpassing what we see in California. Ironically, the same conversations here about the growing impact of digital transformation were voiced at business receptions I attended and were frequently discussed in the local newspapers. And while the country counts 11 languages, English was dominant – though the accent was not always easy to understand!

Entrepreneurial People

Not only were the people kind and gracious, but a disproportionate number were entrepreneurial. I suspect entrepreneurism comes more naturally there, as jobs are more difficult to find yet money needs to be earned. And the entrepreneurs ran the gamut, from the independent and obviously poor “car attendants” in Johannesburg who help you park – and then watch – your vehicle for a Rand or two in payment, to the couple we met in Cape Town whose company has developed a technology that enables grocery stores, even in remote areas, to purify and sell safe, affordable drinking water in reusable containers.

Now that I’m back, people have asked me, “Is THIS the trip of the lifetime, even better than last year’s trip?”  I shrug, because I cannot choose. All I can say is that when you return home from a trip, and it feels like a trip of a lifetime, it’s been time and money well spent.