A tale of two friends – the impact of South African flight

This is an article written by Charl du Plessis – a buddy of mine from business school in the USA. He is an expat South African, and is writing about the flight of talent from South Africa. They still have not found equilibrium there, whereas in NZ it seems the flow just might begin to reverse. No names.

A Tale of Two Friends
The Brain Drain

Words by Charl du Plessis Pix ©

I was thinking about two old friends this week. The one is undoubtedly the smartest person I have ever known. The other, simply the most successful. Common to them are their humble roots somewhere in mid-South African society, and secondly, that the local business environment could not find a place to accommodate their phenomenal talents. The smart guy, because his best ideas are too new and threatening; and the successful guy, because his pursuit of the best available ideas took him to greener pastures. They were both in South Africa last week. The smart guy, because he lives and works here, although his contribution is grossly underrated. The successful guy jetted in for a press conference, where some local newspaper desperately tried to claim him as still one of our own.

I met Dr Success at primary school. When Chopper first introduced those bicycles with the long handlebars, our bloody knees testified to our better understanding of the word “speed wobble.” We got puppies from the same litter and gave them equally ridiculous names. The early death of his father introduced that scary concept into both our young lives, although it always remained unspoken. Our mothers shared the same dream of upward mobility when conniving to send us both to boarding school at an old, reputable institution. Here, for five years, our friendship drifted apart as we jostled either to ingratiate ourselves with kids from the affluent neighbourhoods, or to compete for their respect, in the only arenas we had to our disposal – sport and schoolwork. Trust was broken somewhere along the way as he managed both. After school, he went on to accrue a list of blue chip distinctions before settling in Australia as the heir apparent of a global company that will shape the future of our children in significant ways. We lost touch, then connected briefly on Skype for a while where I found that his country of origin was no longer an important point of reference. His kids all spoke Mandarin even as the local business press called him “Boertjie.”

Mr Smart and I met during the indignity of university initiation – running up a mountain before daybreak in a uniform T-shirt and suffering abuse, mostly verbal. He was already obnoxious then, questioning and challenging every step of the process. This would become the central theme to his studies and career. Always questioning and challenging, to the point that he would never humble himself by graduating. The regurgitation of stale ideas was just too unpalatable for him then, and that has only grown more acute through the years. He dabbled in a few things to keep alive, while reading three books a night. Someone in advertising spotted his intellect over a dinner table and offered him the chance to help shape the fortunes of local companies. Every ad agency worth mention on an advertising resume put him in the front-line at some stage or the other, including a few stints abroad. As we reconnected every few years, the scope and intensity of his insights were becoming progressively abstract and futuristic, but the cynicism that showed through when he told of good ideas lying rotting in client boardrooms was moderated by his enduring belief in the potential of people. What was clear when talking over a glass of wine last week was that he has finally been forced to change tack. He was dumbing down his ideas so that his clients could still feel that they owned them. It was too scary to open up for what the new could bring. The market was losing his talent, because it lacked the daring to engage with challenging thought.

These talented individuals are flip sides of the same phenomenon – the South African brain drain. Dr Success represents the common garden variety, where the talented have migrated to the next level of opportunity elsewhere. Mr Smart shows how thin our business strawman has grown around the top as the talented depart. The old joke where both countries’ average IQ increases when a talented South African shifts abroad has grown stale. The vacuum of talent at the top has created a lack of competition in the local market for ideas, and an enormous complacency with our own prejudice. Built on the legacy of Apartheid education, that either discouraged critical thinking, or plainly denied learning, our tolerance for disruptive intellectual horsepower has dissipated. But what an opportunity for the company that can create an environment within which no idea is too far-fetched for consideration, or where no “gut-feel” opinion goes unchallenged. Are there gutsy managers in your organization who let good ideas penetrate their comfort zones? Or is the only idea left how to afford the move abroad?

Published by Lance Wiggs


One reply on “A tale of two friends – the impact of South African flight”

  1. Interesting and eloquent, but it misses the two main reasons all the people I know who’ve left tell me: (1) violence and (2) lack of opportunities (for whites) via affirmative action.


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