Use the fruits of the past to produce a new harvest
THERE is a tradition in the United States of what is known as "dollar-a-year" men. Or women, as the case may be.
What happens is that successful business people, having made enough so that they have no need to work for reward, are harnessed into government service. Typically the president, or someone close to him, approaches these people with a request that their country needs them. They might be reminded, for example, of John Kennedy's famous inauguration call: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
Some years ago it was suggested to the then National Party government that they adopt this approach. The reply came, as in the title of Helen Suzman's autobiography, in no uncertain terms.
The Nats weren't interested in having liberal business leaders enter their inner circles. At the death they did call in a few, such as Louis Shill of Sage and Derek Keys of Gencor, while the government of national unity appointed Chris Liebenberg of Nedbank to succeed Keys as finance minister.
Public Enterprises Minister Stella Sigcau refers to sneeringly to middle-aged, grey-haired white engineers and scientists and humiliates them in public. What seems to escape the honourable minister is that these men, and many like them, are the repositories of skills and experience that are admired and valued throughout the world.
A South African CA qualification, for example, practically guarantees the holder a job in any developed economy. Similarly South African graduates in medicine, law, geology, physics, architecture and a host of other disciplines are to be found flourishing in many parts of the developed world.
These people are the beneficiaries of a world-class education system, a system to which access to blacks was largely and sinfully denied. That was a tragedy, both for the individuals concerned and for the country which was denied the fruits of the accomplishments of which they would certainly have been capable had they been given the same opportunities.
But the fact remains that this country has a supply of business, organisational and scientific talent of international standard which could, if called upon, make a huge contribution to the transformation of this country into a successful society of equal opportunity.
It happens that this supply is mainly in white hands, but surely that does not mean it should be denied to the country in the shape of voluntary service to the state.
Instead of spending millions, and even billions, of taxpayers' money on a vast array of consultants, some of whom are incompetent while others are crooks, perhaps government should tap into the reservoir of skills and experience of those much-maligned grey-haired whites whose training, expense and commitment to the country could be a great national asset.
This is not to say that all consultants are useless but the scale on which they are being used does not seem excessive.
It seems that in the headlong rush to Africanisation we are missing a golden opportunity to exploit, in the interest above all of our impoverished masses, the vast investment this country made over the generations in producing one of the world's most able business communities.
As a concrete example, perhaps President Mandela, who has profound grasp of the value to society of our business leaders, might appoint a blue ribbon group to consult with him on the vexed matter of exchange control. Again, this is not to disparage the Reserve Bank or the Finance Ministry, but it stands to reason that those who are at the coal face of international finance, who deal in billions and have built vast enterprises, can surely play a constructive role providing independent and practical advice to government.
The Nats refused to use our business talent in this way. It is a mistake the ANC should not make.