South Africa IMD business forum - IMD Business School
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South Africa remains a beacon of hope, with business leaders inspired and motivated to build a prosperous, sustainable, and inclusive future

For all South Africa’s challenges and the crises currently threatening the country’s growth and development, the IMD Business Forum in Johannesburg was nevertheless a positive, upbeat forum, driven and motivated to turn the country’s challenges around.
September 2023

“South Africa is the lighthouse of Africa.” This was the strong message at an upbeat and energetic IMD Business Forum in Johannesburg this week, attended by alumni and business leaders from across the African continent, on the topic of How responsible leadership can create new dynamics between business and society’. 

It has many undeniable challenges, but the continent remains one of huge economic potential, central to its ability to power future global economic growth. 

Hischam El-Agamy, IMD’s Executive Director for Middle East and Africa, who moderated the Business Forum, said it was always a pleasure to be in South Africa, which was a country close to his heart. 

In addressing the forum, El-Agamy focused on South Africa’s competitiveness and provided a reminder of the country’s importance to the African region. 

“Two decades ago, South Africa was building a nation,” he said. “Today, and after four decades of democracy, and despite its challenges, South Africa remains a global player with political influence, driving amazing innovation and continuing to focus on prosperity. South Africa is considered by the international community as a lighthouse for the continent – and a role model of peaceful transformation all over the world.”  

Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) Deputy CEO, Khulekani Mathe, provided a frank insight into how South Africa’s organized business community is playing a constructive role in supporting the government in addressing the country’s current energy crisis, transport and logistics bottlenecks, and the high levels of crime and corruption which are damaging South Africa’s investment potential. 

Mathe said some of the country’s most senior business leaders were heading workstreams, focusing on solutions to these critical areas and engaging regularly with senior government officials, while reporting back to the country’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, every six weeks for updates on these areas. 

“Energy, transport and logistics, and crime and corruption are issues that affect business and society. It’s become increasingly difficult to do business in South Africa. The transport and logistics challenge has resulted in high costs and huge inefficiencies, and the mining industry alone lost R50 billion (CHF 2.3bn) in 2022 due to this. 

“We are doing the same freight volumes now as we were doing in 1993, and the levels of crime are making it difficult to do business. The impact of all of this is huge. If we can sort this out, we can get the economy to grow at least 3%. It is absolutely critical that we fix this,” Mathe said in his address at the forum. 

With so much at stake to turn around the country’s current slump, Mathe said 130 of South Africa’s CEOs had signed a pledge to support South Africa’s turnaround. 

“As a South African business, we believe in the potential of this country and are committed to building it. We believe that, through partnerships and focused interventions, we can make a significant and positive impact on our country and create hope for all South Africans. We are committed to being a force for good and we are all very encouraged by the level of commitment from government. It is not without challenges, but we are able to bring our differences to the table to work with them to solve the bigger problems.  

“We have done this many times before, working together as business and government to address our country’s problems, and we have a unique opportunity to turn the situation around. It has its pros and cons, but it is a model to save our intractable challenges. Doing nothing is simply not an option,” said Mathe. 

One of the highlights of the forum was a riveting session in which one of South Africa’s business titans, Nando’s founder Robbie Brozin, and global creative director Melusi Mhlungu, gave a preview of a civic movement they are launching next week to help regenerate and revive the Johannesburg central business district. 

Brozin, whose phenomenal Nandos franchise started in Johannesburg and now has grown to 1,200 stores in 23 countries, gave a fascinating insight into the launch and expansion of Nando’s, following its launch during some of South Africa’s most turbulent times. 

I was always trying to hustle; Nando’s was a sideline. Our country was burning when we started in 1987 and we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. I was working the till and when I saw the chicken bones coming back with almost no meat on them, I saw this was an opportunity to go global,” Brozin said, giving a fascinating insight into Nando’s’ early days. 

While his business has become a global success story, he reminded the audience that it was founded at a time when South Africa was going through far greater challenges than the country is facing now. 

“South Africa is going through a very difficult time right now, but these days are easy compared to what came before in this country. It was much tougher. We were trying to build a business in a place with no hope. Interest rates were high, and we could not see a way to peace and reconciliation. Even when Nelson Mandela was first released, it was bloodshed; there were more deaths at the time when he was released than in the whole of the struggle,” Brozin reminded the audience. 

Now, however, there is a new “struggle” in South Africa – that of eradicating poverty and inequality, which needs business, civil society, and government to collaborate in finding solutions to the country’s myriad of problems.  

“I see the future as so much easier now, but what is the difference between now and then? The enemy was apartheid, with a blue uniform; now the enemy is poverty, which takes away human dignity. How do you bring human dignity back when poverty is such a powerful enemy?” said Brozin. 

As a start, he reached out to Mhlungu, an acclaimed creative, to come back home from New York to start a movement, led by creatives and driven by the community and the corporate sector, to bring back the shine and luster to the “City of Gold”. 

Their movement is a “catalyst for change, a super-connector to help bring hope and instill pride back into the city” of Johannesburg.  

One of their first projects will be the refurbishment of the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge in the Johannesburg CBD. Their goal is to connect every person who wants to make a difference, from the public to the private sector, who is looking for sustainable and resilient solutions in safety and security, social engagement, commerce, and arts and culture in the city. 

“The Nelson Mandela Bridge can become the attraction to bringing back people to the city. The brands that have put up their hands to help us with this project are incredible. Collaboration is everything. The people, government, corporates, this will be a first example of what the collaboration is capable of,” said Mhlungu, the founder of We Are Bizarre, and the former global creative director for Adidas and Instagram, and the creative director of two SuperBowl ads. 

“I firmly believe this is going to be Africa’s century” – David Bach, Professor of Strategy and Political Economy and Dean of Innovation and Programs at IMD

It was his work with the Black Lives Matter movement, however, that made him realize “how much power creativity can have on social change and social issues”. 

“I got a phone call from the ‘chicken guy’, Robbie, and from that conversation, everything changed. I decided to leave New York and come back to ‘the town with no electricity’ and to look at what impact I want to leave on the world – but most importantly in the city where I am from and where I was raised,” said Mhlungu, who was born and bred in Soweto. 

“The gold in our city is the people. We are the backbone and hope for our city. Together we will make Joburg the gold standard for all, the one built not by its skyscrapers, but by its people,” is the rallying cry of the movement Brozin and Mhlungu will soon be launching. 

IMD Professor of Strategy and Political Economy and Dean of Innovation and Programs David Bach and Professor of Financial Management Leif Sjöblom delivered inspiring Masterclasses to help equip leaders in attendance with valuable research and data that will help them navigate the complexities of the future, innovate for a better tomorrow, and lead confidently through uncertainty. 

Bach said it was important for business leaders like those in the audience, and a young generation of South Africans and Africans, to understand the importance of their role in driving global growth. 

“It is South Africa to the rescue; I really mean that,” he said. “Much of the world is getting older, but Africa represents youth and energy and growth. We’ve seen all the projections of the large, youthful workforce in Africa that is going to power global growth. I firmly believe this is going to be Africa’s century.”  

IMD Chief Financial and Administrative Officer, Peggy Le Roux gave an update on IMD’s strong relationship with South Africa, while President of the IMD Alumni Club South Africa Auguste Claude-Nguetsop said IMD was “unique” in how it developed and brought the best out of business leaders. 

Sibongile Gumbi, an Executive Member of the IMD Alumni Club South Africa and creator of the medicinal plant-based product Colon Regulator, shared her inspiring entrepreneurship journey, the challenges of establishing a start-up, and the importance of supporting small businesses in growing the local economy. 

“The potential for local innovators remains untapped for home-grown innovative solutions. Local innovators can fill in gaps and seize opportunities where imported innovations may be unsuitable or poorly positioned for the local context. If properly harnessed, homegrown innovations can leapfrog progress because of the relatively low switching costs of the existing systems. Africa is home to seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with many countries having rapidly growing and youthful populations with ever-increasing mobile penetration. It is a fertile ground for innovative market-based solutions,” said Gumbi. 

IMD’s Chief Digital and Customer Experience Officer Louis Leclezio made the exciting announcement at the Business Forum that IMD has now established a business and innovation hub in South Africa. 

“Building on the successes we have witnessed in Africa, we have established a Business and Innovation Hub in SA. We are consolidating functions that are currently successfully delivered from different countries around the world and adding new roles to serve IMD globally. Why choose South Africa, you might ask? Are we oblivious to the challenges, like load-shedding or media scrutiny? Far from it. But let’s also weigh in the factors of language compatibility, a shared time zone, and a treasure trove of learning opportunities.  

“Add to that the observed talent, the undeniable work ethic, and an insatiable hunger for a brighter future,” Leclezio said in bringing an inspiring session to a close. “Given all this, we firmly believe we’re making an astute choice. Let’s not focus solely on today’s headlines but together let’s invest in tomorrow’s promise.”