SA is the Stepping Stone to Africa – For Now

Current executive recruitment trends in Africa are rapidly becoming both a confirmation of conventional wisdom and a challenge to it. Yes, SA is the springboard into Africa for many companies, as our national strategists say. But how long will that status hold, given the high rate of growth in alternatives such as Nigeria?

Several trends demand attention. The first relates to Africa’s growing appeal in a changing world no longer dominated by the European and US markets. Africa’s population topped one billion in 2009, according to a United Nations revision of population numbers. So, increasing numbers of consumers underpin economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa’s economic growth shows faster recovery than many European and North American economies. The numbers also show that growth is often stronger outside SA ’s borders.

Africa’s rapidly improving prospects are reflected by changing volumes at an executive search specialist such as Talent Africa. By the middle of last year, 21% of search assignments were for placements elsewhere in Africa, or with African scope from a South African base. That percentage has doubled in two years.

Several other developments deserve comment. The South African diaspora is beginning to go into reverse. South Africans who left for overseas find their skills are less marketable in low-growth economies. They are returning to SA and often welcome deployment in Africa.

This trend supports our hub positioning, as does the current mix of Africa-bound candidates. South Africans predominate, followed by executives from Zimbabwe, then Nigerians (a fast-growing category), then Kenyans.

Even when candidates are Nigerian or Kenyan, hub infrastructure such as OR Tambo International Airport is often helpful. Top executive performers are frequent flyers. It is possible to make initial contacts and carry out interviews at the airport or in nearby Sandton before they fly out to other African destinations.

In some important respects, official policy could ultimately undermine SA’s positioning as a talent hub. Some recruitment requirements are extremely onerous. For instance, before skilled expatriates can be recruited by SA-based companies, it must be proved that local candidates cannot do those jobs to the same level of competence.

SA is happy to import flat-screen TVs but not so happy to import skills that grow the economy.

Further challenges are created by the application of black economic empowerment legislation to multinationals and some smaller businesses.

Other developments also challenge SA’s hub status. Many places with rising placement volumes are much closer to East or West Africa than SA. The discovery of oil in Uganda has led to a strong focus there. The oil and non-oil economy of Nigeria also attracts growing attention. Placements into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana are also rising.

In recent months, the top four placement destinations outside SA have been Lagos, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala. Volumes are tilting to the north.

The quality of African candidates from outside SA is also material. Executives from other African countries frequently have stellar qualifications and may have studied in Europe or the US. This creates a challenge to SA’s education system to produce top performers capable of having an effect in the business world.

The sheer weight of numbers being hired in high-growth economies to the north is also pertinent. The African Economic Outlook report by the African Development Bank estimated growth in Nigeria and Tanzania last year at 6,9%, with the Congo expected to grow by 8,4%. The report put Nigeria among Africa’s 10 fastest growing economies, with SA among the 10 slowest.

Admittedly, SA has a large economic base and a head start over most of Africa, but a lot of business excitement is now focused further north.

The speed with which some African authorities process international executive work permits is also an eye-opener.  In an increasingly global economy, ready access to top talent helps drive continued growth.

Therefore, talent acquisition has to be promoted rather than stalled. Winning nations that grow jobs are both business-friendly and relocation-friendly.

All in all, SA retains its position as the stepping stone into Africa. But the question gathers urgency: For how long?

Annelize Van Rensburg is a director of Talent Africa.


Leadership is often the underlying goal when boards of directors and senior corporate executives embark on strategy formulation. Unfortunately, followership’ is often preferred in practice — a worrying trait as Africa tries to shake off its status as the continent that’s perennially at the back of the queue. There are numerous reasons for the contradiction, but two common factors are normally apparent.

copycatsThe first is the urgent need for answers; the second is the habit of dependence. Directors and CEOs are under pressure to produce results, which is why they call in leadership and strategy consultants in the first place. The subconscious desire is for a quick-fix. Off-the-peg solutions can then seem irresistible, while the consultant’s role may be seen solely as that of a facilitator of ‘best practice’ from elsewhere. In fact, a more fundamental assessment is necessary if the uniqueness of an organisation’s situation is to be understood properly. Leaders can focus so strongly on answers they fail to properly understand the questions. Yet a thorough understanding of problems invariably leads to new appreciation of leadership opportunities. However, it requires discipline to spend time ‘within the problem’ thinking through the possibilities.

Thinking is good, but a leader’s starting point is listening. Again, it is necessary to be thorough about it by listening to all stakeholders. Turn a stakeholder complaint or concern around, and a possible solution is invariably revealed. Specific cases might compromise client confidentiality, but numerous general examples demonstrate the point that challenges can work to our advantage. Industrialisation occurred first in the West. Therefore, Africa has no ‘first-mover advantage’. We have to exploit our ‘last-mover advantage’ instead. One of our continent’s big problems is lack of infrastructure (one result of coming last), but even this can be turned to advantage. Most countries in Africa don’t have to worry about amortising investments in old smokestack industries.

Without this baggage, African business can focus instead on new, ‘green’ industries. Leaders can focus so strongly on answers they fail to properly understand the questions. Yet a thorough understanding of problems invariably leads to new appreciation of leadership opportunities.

Sometimes we make a start, but fail to follow through. For instance, the windup radio is an Anglo-African development that was commercialised in South Africa. Other ideas came through like windup cell phone power generators and windup torches, but you can’t help thinking that if this breakthrough had been pioneered by the Asian Tigers or the USA a substantial windup industry would today be in place. Other opportunities exist. Our continent is potentially the world’s biggest cell phone market, thanks to a combination of long distances and almost non-existent telephone line networks. Our need for affordable, reliable communication should turn us into the drivers of cell phone industry innovation, but the tendency is to wait for 3G and 4G solutions to be developed in Europe, America and Asia.

This brings us to the second impediment to real leadership — the habit of dependence. We are well aware of the scourge of ‘dumping’ in a trade sense, but fail to realise that intellectual dumping also happens. Some of our teachers regard outcomes-based education as an example. We decided to cut and paste an educational prescription from international sources when we might have developed initiatives suited to our own circumstances if we had had the discipline to ‘stay in the problem’ and define our own solutions. It is important to learn from the First World. But to realise our last-mover advantage, we have to learn from its mistakes… and then do something else. We should also have the confidence to pursue our own best interests. Leaders know where profit and growth lie and are not afraid to head in that direction. A current example involves our membership of the Brics ‘club’ of emerging economic powers. The Brics forum can become a talking-shop or can be commercialised to our advantage.

Ways of achieving this goal become evident simply by applying the mantra ‘turn the problem into the opportunity’. South Africa suffers from geographic isolation. We sit at the tip of Africa rather than its centre. We’re at the end of the line; being the hub would suit us better. Our hub objective might be realised by seeking a Brics role as a ship-building centre and seaborne freight services provider on the Brazil-SA-India-China trade route. As shipping services provider to the Brics we would become central to the new economic power bloc. To achieve the desired differentiation we have to overturn past norms. Leadership like this requires courage as you deliberately set the country (or organisation) apart. Dramatic achievement of leadership status is rarely achieved and, admittedly, it’s safer not to stand out.

Perhaps we crave acceptance rather than leadership. There are historical reasons for this. Many of those reasons — generations of exploitation and colonisation — also applied in the East. That did not inhibit the emergence of the Asian Tigers. They were not content to remain copycats. They sought future advantage from the disadvantages they suffered in the past. If we are so keen to learn from overseas, let’s learn that lesson as well.

Dr Simo Lushaba is chairman of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.