The Big Read: Our bright young stars are shining in America

29 November 2013 - 02:04 By Jonathan Jansen

Here's something very uncomfortable. South Africans are much more likely to achieve greatness if they leave the country than if they stay here.

This made a lot of sense to me after reading a shared Facebook posting from a friend with the provocative title "What America gained and SA lost" (Google it). The post listed the phenomenal achievements of South African expats, from high-end innovations such as YouTube and PayPal to epigenetic cancer therapy and intelligent Mars robots.

In a Silicon Valley business publication, says the message, this appeared: "Here's something interesting about our executive of the year awards - they are all originally from South Africa."

Astoundingly, four of the journal's first five winners of the US's hi-tech CEO awards were from the southern tip of darkest Africa. Then follows a long list of high achievers in this centre of hi-tech industry and innovation in California, all South African.

Our countrymen and women are also leaders in other fields, from the dean of the Stanford Business School to the recently retired chief justice of Massachusetts. The list of businessmen is endless, some of them heading up Fortune 500 companies. There is a former Miss USA, a band of Hollywood stars, comedians, world-renowned writers and, of course, the Pretoria Boys High star who is the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

There are names you have never heard here - like Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo, Gift Ngoepe and Donovan Neale-May - but who are movers and shakers in North America.

I met some of these people a few weeks ago in Silicon Valley and asked them one simple question: Why did you make it here and not back home in South Africa? There were three answers.

One, in the US they think differently about time. There, people work really hard. When they say, in colloquial terms, "we pulled an all-nighter", they really do mean that they wrestled all night with a difficult social, legal or technological problem. In South Africa, that phrase means you slept with someone.

Two, in Barack Obama's country they think differently about talent. Smart there means thinking for yourself, asking original questions, disturbing the peace - intellectually speaking - challenging convention, and just going against the grain.

In other words, the very things for which South African teachers - and the broader society - penalise you and label you as "controversial" or "difficult".

And three, in the land of the free they think differently about trust. You are expected to do well, to have your own ideas and to exceed the minimum standards set. In fact, if you achieve anything less than an A in graduate school at a good university it is assumed there is something wrong with you.

The same people, a different context.

South Africa has unbelievable talent locked up inside its young people in schools, universities and society. There is nothing wrong with the youth. It is the context that destroys us, a substandard place where, rather than debate "the next big thing" in technological innovation or social entrepreneurship, we wrestle with whether the pass mark should be 30%, 40% or higher.

Rather than talk about the next generation of learning technologies, we anguish for months on end about whether the textbooks (already a dated technology) arrived in Limpopo. You can tell something about the future of a country by what its citizens argue about in public. By that standard, you would do much better outside South Africa.

Hold your fire. I am not arguing that young people should go. I am arguing, rather, that we think differently about leaving. As our ambassador in a foreign country told some expats the other day: "We should stop talking about people who leave South Africa; we should rather talk about South Africans working abroad."

I like that. In a global economy marked by knowledge migrants, our language is decidedly behind the times. In fact, many of those expats who have made it on a world stage shuttle regularly between South Africa and abroad, making vital social, academic, cultural and business connections.

Where does that leave us? We should urgently rethink how we will re-engineer the education system to create places of innovation rather than memory work. We should reward risk rather than fidelity to the words of a teacher. Until that happens, my advice to you is get out of this country as soon as you can.