Opinion

Attitudes to immigration may stop SA from being Africa's Silicon Valley

Just think of the jobs the world's brightest and best could bring if they were welcomed in our country, says Andrew Human

14 July 2019 - 00:00 By Andrew Human
Elon Musk is one of the US's immigrant success stories.
Elon Musk is one of the US's immigrant success stories.
Image: Paul Harris/Getty Images

What do Apple, SpaceX and Google have in common? They're all American? They are all pioneers? They're all founded by revolutionary thinkers? Now we're getting closer. They are all founded by immigrants.

Steve Jobs was the son of Abdulfattah al Jandali who immigrated to the US from Syria. Sergey Brin immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union at the age of six. And then, of course, there's Elon Musk, who left Pretoria when he was 17.

Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that we should "unlock economic potential and create a Silicon Valley," at the 4IR digital economy summit. 4IR. That's pretty cool terminology for the fourth industrial revolution.

Are we on the right path to be the Silicon Valley, or the Big Apple of Africa?

New York City is a talent magnet. If you throw a stone you'll hit someone who came to town with their dreams in a suitcase. From any small town in the US, if there is a kid who can play the guitar well, then that kid packed her guitar, got on a bus and headed for New York.

More than the US, people with a dream, and talent, from across the globe, make great effort to get themselves to New York. Waiters have dreams of appearing on Broadway, of seeing their writing in the New York Times, listing their software company and taking Wall Street by the horns.

Let's be brutally honest here, most young South Africans — black and white — would love the opportunity to work in the US.

This is accelerated evolution. Natural selection at pace. The best people from every little pocket across the globe get concentrated in a small space. The A Team. To share ideas, to make magic, to create things that never existed.

The founders of Apple, SpaceX and Google are all immigrants and they haven't taken employment from anyone —they've created millions of jobs

Let's go back to those three immigrants. Apple is the world's first trillion-dollar company. Google dominates the internet, yet it didn't exist a few years ago. And Musk's SpaceX is the first commercial company sending rockets to space.

These three immigrants haven't taken employment from anyone - they are part of the strongest economy in the world, and they have created millions of jobs.

I think it would be great if Johannesburg could become the New York City of Africa. Or, as President Cyril Ramaphosa suggests, its Silicon Valley. But I know in the creative advertising industry there are ZERO foreigners in leadership positions in SA. Zero. In comparison, every leading city in the world has a creative department made up of foreigners. New York ad agencies aren't American. Neither are London agencies British.

A pointed example is the topic of Manuel Bordé's talk at the upcoming DStv seminar at the Loeries in August: "Mom, I'm moving to the Middle East. Forget everything you think you know about the Middle East, as we break cultural stereotypes and dive deep into a market that has been heavily influenced by creatives from all corners of the world."

He is, in fact, rubbing our noses in it, as there are many talented South Africans working in Dubai. How many people from Dubai are working in SA?

Often I hear people from the middle classes criticising people from the townships for attacking foreigners. Tut-tutting and shaking their heads at how incomprehensible this is. Is it really? We are not any different in the leafy suburbs and listed corporations. We just use BEE instead of a sharpened machete.

A Kenyan rising star won't be hired. Neither will a Nigerian designer or a Malawian copywriter. They are worth nothing on the BEE points system. May as well hire a white male for the good they'll do you.

Foreigners are ostracised from the corridors of business. Don't bring your talent here. Your ideas of innovation and your start-up company. That's our policy. Closed for business.

How can we possibly have aspirations to be the next New York, the next Silicon Valley, when we don't have the very first thing required: a welcoming approach to foreigners? Can we really hope to succeed as the B Team? Made up of everyone who didn't leave the country, and with no infusion of foreign thought leadership?

Compare it to a sports team. What made the British Premier League successful is the fact that they have attracted the most talented players from across the globe. The same goes for cricket's Indian Premier League. The top teams have the top players - it's as simple as that. You cannot have a B Team and expect to beat the A Team. We need to move beyond the closed little island we are marooned on.

I know we have a wound. I am not denying this or denying that we have a lot to fix and transform. But this scar, this scab, needs to heal. And we need to nourish it to allow new growth. From the severed and mutilated stump of the tree we need to allow new shoots to grow. We want the next Elon Musk here. Sergey Brin and Steve Jobs. We want their ideas, their companies, and the millions of people they will employ.

We want to be the A Team and open for business.

• The author of this article, Andrew Human, is CEO of the Loeries. The Loeries Creative Week takes place in Durban from August 22 to 25. Visit loeries.com

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