The Glass is Always Full, and Other Lessons from South Africa

By Christopher Maclean – Emzingo


By Christopher Rimmer — Pondoland, South Africa

Photo: “Amapondo #2″ by Christopher Rimmer — Pondoland, South Africa


 June will officially bring with it the fourth anniversary of my move to South Africa and the 3.5-year mark with Emzingo.  Reflecting on my time here in SA, I can say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into four years ago. This country and my experience with Emzingo have taught me so much more than I could have expected.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve summarized what I’ve learned from South Africa into six lessons – though it’s pretty futile to try to capture the rich complexity of the South African story in six points. I hope that this summary taken alongside many others, can at least contribute a brushstroke to the larger portrait of truth.


1- Its always worth it to take on new challenges

Perhaps the whole “just do it” and “try new things” and “push yourself” is a bit of a cliched mantra, but my perception is that most people settle for comfort and don’t always take that step into the unknown.

When I took on the role of country manager for Emzingo, I had that perfect combination of a lot of excitement and underlying trepidation. I had to build a country operation and engage in an entrepreneurial endeavor very different from anything I had ever done before. The experience has been one of the most rewarding of my life. It has taught me a lot about myself, my ability to handle uncertainty, create systems and processes in a vacuum, and learn and evolve on the fly.

Through our programs, I see our participants go through this process and take on new challenges each and every day – whether it’s creating a strategy from scratch for a client in a new industry, managing the relationship with a client from a completely different cultural background or bungee jumping from the Chaf Pozi towers in Soweto!

These experiences take you out of your comfort zone and require you to stretch yourself, learn something new, and do things you’ve never done before.

We receive emails from alumni all the time referring to their experience with Emzingo as the defining moment that enabled them to realize what they were capable of. They’ve since gone on to accept leadership positions within companies like Uber or Deloitte and have stated that they wouldn’t have had the guts to take that step without the experience they gained with us in South Africa, Peru or Brazil.

Whether you succeed or fail, the lessons that you can gain from these experiences are the ones that stay. They become future benchmarks that no one can ever take away from you.


2- The past matters

There’s an African proverb that says “you cannot understand where you are going until you can understand where you’ve come from”. Nowhere is this truer than on the African continent, where the legacy of colonization continues to pervade the social, political and institutional systems, and behavioral norms every single day.


In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid is not just an elephant in the room, it’s more like an elephant in the elevator, for economic inequality and race divisions still overlap immensely. The legacy of the Bantu Education Act, which put a ceiling on the level of education black South Africans could access, has created a gap in the labor market and disempowered generations. The way Johannesburg is designed, with it’s financial hubs and their supporting adjacent townships full of cheap “labor”, has meant that even with the transition, people are still living in their own racially, culturally and economically homogeneous environments.

These examples and many others make the physical and mental transformation that South Africa needs incredibly challenging. For this reason, we make sure that our participants fully understand the country’s history and the impact it has on where it is today, and where it can go in the future.


3- There is no single story

The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in this beautiful TED Talk talks about the dangers of the single story. She describes, rather hilariously, what she experienced as a middle-class Nigerian, who moved to the United States to study and the perceptions and assumptions of her American classmates.

Often we take for granted – or as the “single story” – the image of a place or a group or a history others – or the media – provide us. We’ve all seen the ads with the desperate impoverished and hungry African child who needs your help. In any context, and especially the South African one, this can easily take on a paradigm of good vs. evil, colonizer vs. victim, black vs. white. But the truth is far more complicated. Nearly everyone I meet on all sides of the spectrum has experienced victimization, domination and heroism at various points. There is no single explanation or description of the South African experience. There is no clear good guy or bad guy.

Acknowledging the lack of single story from the start is critical to understanding laterally, the full picture of what is going on and how the problems can be solved. If we fall into single story paradigms and explanations, not only will our solutions be incomplete, but we will blind ourselves from the true beauty and potential that is around us.

As Emzingo, we aim to bring together stakeholders from across the private, social and academic sectors. By building those eco-systems and partnerships, we try to ensure that stories from all sides are heard, and better solutions are developed.


4- Know the context

Last Christmas, my wife and I did a trek along South Africa’s Wild Coast. A beautiful part of the country if you haven’t been there.

The Sout African government takes tremendous pride in its achievement of spreading electricity infrastructure across the country. However, the subsistence farmers and cattle herders I met in the Pondoland villages, don’t need or use electricity. They have a lifestyle that works well for them, farming and herding. If they change their lifestyle to use electricity, then they will need to pay money for that service, and they have no need for money.


Context is important. Electrifying these areas were certainly well intentioned expensive investments, but they have questionable value for the Pondoland villages.

Making assumptions about needs can sometimes blind us from what’s really happening. We can showcase electricity improvements all we want but if rape rates are on the rise, or the inequality is worsening, it’s worth questioning what we are doing.

The solutions we provide need to be asset and needs-based to be relevant for and driven by the communities in which they are built. I’m proud to say that Emzingo’s Human-Centre Consulting approach takes on this philosophy with all our projects and engagement. Many of our fantastic partners here in South Africa, like Simanye Group also do an excellent job of leveraging an asset and need-based awareness in what they do.


5- The glass is always full

Do you think the glass is half full or half empty? South Africa has taught me that technically, the glass is always full!

Maybe sometimes more full with air, and other times more full with water. What’s important is how you use the contents of the glass.

the_glass_is_always_full_by_bluetalon123-d4jw8l0Traditional business case studies teach you to think about what the client is lacking, what they need to gain or how to better achieve their goals. In emerging markets, it’s far more relevant to focus on maximizing the potential of what you do have.

As I’ve visited our partners in the Johannesburg CBD, Soweto, Alex, and Diepsloot, and listened to the incredible stories of spazza shop, hairdresser, and grocery wholesaler entrepreneurs I’ve been blown away by their mastery of this concept. These individuals have identified the contents of “their cup”, taken their small plot of land or leveraged their community networks to borrow/raise money and turned themselves into thriving entrepreneurs.

There is a very real vacuum in South Africa and it is ripe with opportunity if you’re able to see how your glass is full.


6- The power of storytelling

Post-apartheid South Africa struggles to tell its nation-building story. The United States is one of the most effective examples of storytelling as nation-building. Everyone knows that the US is supposedly the “land of opportunity”. Whether or not that is actually true, that is the story that binds a very diverse group of people together.

South Africa is a similarly constructed, new political entity with a diverse population and a history of settlement and segregation that is eerily similar to the US. The apartheid-era story was focused on the struggle and how to overcome a suffocatingly oppressive regime.

Now that the honeymoon of independence and democracy has ended, South Africa finds itself a little disoriented. There are very different individual realities in democratic South Africa, but little to bind them together. The country needs leadership that can effectively identify and tell that story.

I believe the cup is full, and the future is bright for South Africa, and Emzingo hopes to continue to be a part of the solution here . As for me, well, whatever happens I’m just incredibly grateful to have learned so much.

Chris has been the South African Country Manager for Emzingo since January 2012. See his profile here.


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