Lack of integrity hits home
It is exactly five years since I started writing this column for The Times. Growing up in Greenside in Johannesburg, my future aspirations extended from opening the batting for the Springboks to designing new headquarters for the United Nations.
As a boy, I had deep passions for numbers and drawing and figured studying architecture would best cover my life's ambitions. Words and communication were never my strongpoint, undoubtedly the outcome of a number of unwise choices made as an adolescent; it wasn't even a toss up when it came to deciding between reading a classic for a literature project and playing "tippy" (one touch football) on the front lawn with the boys in the neighbourhood.
Fifty years down the line I'm still mystified how I ended up in a career managing other people's money and flattening my weekends stressing over punctuation, spelling and sentence structure.
Yet I haven't given up all hope of retiring to a quiet sanctuary somewhere in the bushveld and seeing out old age painting portraits, listening to '70s rock and reading historical biographies although, once again, providence seems to be meddling in my destiny. Considering the perilous state of the global economy at present and the failure of key policy-makers to reach consensus on a plan to raise confidence levels, the chances of achieving my childhood dreams are worsening by the day.
My initial articles in 2007 covered the alleged source of the current turmoil in the world economy - the collapse of the sub-prime property market in the US.
Early indications were that the crisis was confined to a minor segment of the US residential mortgage market that at worst would reduce growth in the country by a modest 0.25%.
Only later would it emerge that many of the nation's leading investment banks had overstocked their balance sheets with these toxic assets and were now facing bankruptcy. It also materialised that the sub-prime virus had galloped across the Atlantic and certain European banks were more diseased than their US counterparts.
While the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve were quick to respond to the impending disaster, five years down the road, the 17-nation, single-currency eurozone, with its different governments, cultures and fiscal policies, continues to squabble over remedial measures needed to address their banks' sorrowful balance sheets.
The mighty Germans' fixation on inflation and objection to using their taxpayers' money to bail out indolent neighbours perhaps poses the biggest threat to our future wellbeing. Still, while the risk of indecisive European leaders plunging the world into a 1930s-style economic slump remains real, my deeper concerns linger back home.
My good friend and internationally renowned fund manager, Kokkie Kooyman, humorously admits that one of the biggest drawbacks to selecting investments in developing economies is establishing whether, symbolically, you are dealing with the "Ruperts" or the "Kebbles". The Ruperts are the well-regarded dynasty behind the highly successful Rembrandt Group, while the Kebbles refers to Brett Kebble, the rogue CEO of the now defunct JCI Group, who stole billions of rands of shareholders' money and died tragically in an apparent self-arranged murder executed by his underworld buddies.
In a relatively short time, South African leadership has transformed from the integrity, graciousness and intellect of the Ruperts (Mandelas and Sisulus) to the sleaze, thuggery and incompetence of the current band of Kebbles.
In my earlier columns, I often commented on the deteriorating levels of government services and escalating levels of crime and corruption and how I fretted about the effect this would have on our flourishing and esteemed business sector. Unhappily, today our hospitals are still in a state of decay, files still go missing in our law courts and schools are still poorly staffed.
Beggars on street corners continue to multiply, reckless drivers continue to make our roads unsafe, crime continues to dominate headlines and porous borders continue to increase our security risks.
We crow about the triumphant organisation of World Cup 2010, yet our football team is struggling to qualify for Brazil 2014. We boast about being the Gateway to Africa, but ineptitude, overconfidence and blurred government objectives are pushing international corporations to set up offices elsewhere.
Regularly, friends and colleagues would angrily challenge me over my critical views of the current administration. I could understand their discomfort. Many were affluent, comfortable families with wine farms in the Cape and mansions in Plettenberg Bay, who did not want to confront negative issues that could possibly disturb their idyllic lifestyles.
South Africa is a rich country blessed with most of the ingredients necessary to build a winning nation, but as Warren Buffett warns: In looking for a leader you need energy, intellect and integrity. The most important quality is integrity, because if you don't have that, the other two will kill you.