Reflections on South Africa, 7 years on

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I’ve just had the privilege of spending some time in South Africa, my longest trip there in 7 years, and I must say it’s been a totally different experience than I had anticipated.

I’ve come away much, much, much more interested in SA than I thought I would; more proud of my family, friends and people in general; more homesick of the land that I grew up in; and more convinced that it has a great responsibility to offer something unique to the world.

So what follows are my thoughts, primarily so that I can get them down in my own head in some sort of reasonable, thoughtful fashion; and of course so that others may benefit in some way.

Cape Town:
Amazing place, fills you with energy and a sort of peaceful quiet. Didn’t get to experience a proper CT winter, so mine were rose tinted goggles, but hey I’m allowed to fantasize. Very different vibe to Jhb though.

Johannesburg:
I can’t believe the growth that has gone on in Jozi. When I left, Jozi was pretty much up to the concrete highway and a little more in places. Now, it extends far beyond that, with construction everywhere. Office space is everywhere you look (which means there are lots of salespeople looking to fill space = deals to be had), and is relatively much cheaper than in Londres. Sandton seems to be the hub now, with central Jozi relegated to a no-go zone for most people. When the Gautrain is done, think it will have a huge impact on the central Gauteng area (Pretoria, Midrand, Jhb).

The bush:
I fell in love with the bush all over again, can’t wait to go back.  The smell of the veldt, the sounds of it, can’t really describe how it affected me, other than to say the sense of peace and quiet I felt was not something I’ve felt in London / Europe or much anywhere for that matter.  Why are we destroying our natural world?

Living there:
Everyone drives everywhere they go – definitely no walking culture for people with cars (at least in Jozi – maybe CT more so) – primarily because there isn’t a formal public transport system, and also because of the distances involved. In one day travelling to 3 meetings I did about 150km without thinking.

Shops in general aren’t open late, so there’s no such thing as nipping to the Spar or the booze shop at 8:30 for some quick chow and a couple drinks for the mates braai.

Costs
It’s really weird – some things are super, super cheap using the pound; but others are so expensive you can’t justify the expense even paying with pounds. Bread, milk, and other staples fall into the cheap category for obvious reasons, along with meat and veggies. Something like salmon is expensive, digital stuff is relatively more expensive, and photographic equipment 2x to 3x the price on Amazon in the UK.

Pound for Rand however, I think you’re still going to be able to buy more for your money in the UK – supply and demand economics would probably bear me out on this, although one day I’m going to do a sample shopping list in London and Jozi and see what happens. If you go to a bar or restaurant however, you’re going to get more for your money in SA, and generally you’re going to eat better food, which is kinda counterintuitive. That said, I didn’t go to the Gordon Ramsay spot at the new One & Only hotel in CT, so can’t comment on Gordon Bleu food ;-)

Internal flights are much more affordable than they used to be, but if you compare distance and costs with European carriers, I think that similiar EU options are going to be much cheaper = same supply and demand argument here. That said, factoring in flights for internal travel for business seems to be affordable.

The property rental market is cheaper than in the UK (people interested in property would already know this) so for the rent you would pay in the UK, you can get a relatively better and bigger place in SA.

One of the things I really, really didn’t enjoy, was the constant begging. At every street corner you’re confronted with that sinking feeling that you can’t keep doling out cash every time someone asks for it – probably 10 to 20 times a day – even though you want to, which made me feel uncomfortable. I started out givng R5 to “parking professionals” every time I parked the car I was using, and got a swift kick in the rear, to say that I was raising the prices for everyone else locally. Still, R10 to R20 a day is a lot to give away when you do it every day out of guilt.

Bank charges are prohibitive – it seems the SA banks have a nice little big business going there – everyone is aware of it, and “how to reduce bank charges” is a topic that came up a lot.

Bandwidth:
I paid R250 (£20 odd) for 500MB of hotspot bandwidth valid for a year, to use at participating hotspots. Not sure what you pay for something similiar in London, not used that for years now.

We went with WebAfrica ADSL based on a recommendation from a friend, and have to say the service was great, but the bandwidth not that great – approx R250 for 320k/s capped at 1GB is gold rush stuff, so can only hope that is going to drop with the new cable coming in.  In comparison, I pay £21 per month, for 25GB of bandwidth at 8MB/s (which is about 800k/s in real life). Sucks huh?  Good lesson in supply and demand though ;-)

The people
I’ll never forget the man that offered to pay for my parking when I said that I had to go and draw cash from a foreign account (first day, so no cash). His rationale was that the charges alone would be more than the cost of the parking. I didn’t take him up on it, and did swallow when I paid. Nice man though ;-)

There seems to be a general feeling of hope and optimism in the air, mainly around the different sporting events happening in the next two years (IPL, Lions Tour, Confederations Cup, World Cup – missing any?), as well as the recent democratic elections which went pretty smoothly. I found the people I interacted with friendly, helpful, smiling, and willing to go the extra mile.

I got sick and tired of Highveld Stereo after about a week of listening to it, so started tuning into 702, 5FM, RSG and Radio 2000 – and found that between them I was able to stay informed and not hear the same jokes, same jibes and same songs every day. Sad to see Jeremy Mansfield and his crew still doing the same stuff 7 years later, but I guess if it aint broke, don’t fix it….  Ummm, no.

The politics:
I’m no politician, and prefer to focus on results whatever the politics, but my overwhelming impression is that the country is expecting service delivery from the ANC, and JZ (Mr Zuma to the uninitiated) is tasked with overseeing that delivery. He’s got some great people in to help him so things are looking good, but we’ll see. I was gobsmacked by how much emphasis there is on government, and how much red tape (I could be wrong here but that was what I saw and heard) there is for private enterprise to jump through. I’m not gonna say much more here – until I educate myself more.

The Web scene:
I spent a lot of time meeting with people, getting a feel for what’s going on and how big the market is, and it seems to me that there is a pretty small layer of folks who are vocal (read: tweeting) and who are talking (again, read: tweeting and blogging) about stuff (maybe 50 to 100), and then another layer of folks who aren’t into the vocal social web (so I can’t comment on them). People seem to be working for themselves, in small agencies, or in much larger institutions (think banks, insurance companies etc) with relatively few in what I would call mid-size businesses, or startups. Apparently there is more (service / client) work around than there are good people to do it, which is refreshing – means there is a demand and I imagine there are a lot of folks trying to fill that demand.

All in all however, the internet market in Southern Africa (broadened intentionally) is very small, which leads me to a question I’ve been asking for a long time – if the local market is small, but there are people with skillz, why is there this persistent focus on building things for the local market? Why not build something for the global market?

As I see it, the primary constraints are amount of bandwidth, and the corresponding cost of said bandwidth – which is crippling to say the least… but that kind of pressure brings focus and ingenuity, which is what every good startupp needs more than anything else.

Which brings me neatly to my next point: Everyone is talking about the Seacom cable which is supposed to be opening up the bandwidth sluice gates come June / July. Assuming that de-regulation goes ahead, and there are no monopolies, I’m hopeful (along with everyone else) that things will change. Demand will create competition which will bring prices down, which should create more demand. Dark Fibre Africa are laying fibre optic cables in Jozi, CT and Durbs, which is great – awesome to see such progress. If this is the yellow brick road, I hope it leads to Kansas! In the meantime, everyone seems to be using 3G cards, and wireless is nowhere to be seen. Anyone spot an opportunity? ;-)

Business:
The smart money is on the massive growth of the middle market in the coming years. Some people say 3 yrs, others 5. Bottom line is there is a whole layer of people entering the middle market with disposable income to spend. The corresponding side effect of this is that there should be growth of the products and services this new market will demand, of which web based stuff will be one of them.

I’ve arrived back in London feeling that there are opportunities everywhere in SA for people with passion, focus, drive and integrity – who will provide a better product or service, or who spot the growth opportunities an emerging market economy creates. One of the key problems for this will be finding good people, as it seems that the good ones are already gainfully employed ‘cos they’re like hens teeth when you do the math (total population – working population – people in your sector – people with enough experience = a few good, ahem, men, to coin a phrase); but one of the corrolaries to this is that people at the lower end of the skills ladder or just out of the education system are going to be a lot cheaper than in most mature economies, and that those people (not yet dulled into socialist working practices) are going to be hungry for work and the opportunity to better themselves.

That said, most people I spoke to said the same thing consistently about entreprenuers and funders (angels, seed investors, VC’s), and that’s that there is a huge gap / mismatch / chasm between people looking to start ventures, and people looking to create wealth by funding ventures more risky than property or the markets. The starters say there are not enough funders, whilst the funders say there are not enough good starters…  I heard of at least 3 VC funds apparently not doing much locally – why is that?

Some people I spoke to mentioned that there is a stigma of failure in South Africa, holding people back from starting things, which I find interesting.  Coming from an entrepreneurial family, I’ve been around the smell of success and failure a lot (only realising how much of a differentiator it is now) so I’m not sure I can identify with that enough to comment.  Anyone got any perspective on this?  My humble estimation is that the internal fear of jumping off the ledge and starting is being confused with a cultural fear.  May be wrong tho….

Would love to hear your thoughts…..

Update:
This post has been added to the HomecomingRevolution site.

Are you an entrepreneur?

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Great article from Harvard Business:
_ MBAs vs. Entrepreneurs: Who Has the Right Stuff for Tough Times? – Bill Taylor – HarvardBusiness.org

Ultimately, she says, entrepreneurs begin with three simple sets of resources: “Who they are” — their values, skills, and tastes; “What they know” — their education, expertise, and experience; and “Whom they know” — their friends, allies, and networks. “Using these means, the entrepreneurs begin to imagine and implement possible effects that can be created with them…Plans are made and unmade and revised and recast through action and interactions with others on a daily basis.”

Which one are you?

Why I won’t use GoDaddy again

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On Wednesday I was renewing domains that are registered with GoDaddy, so I go to the cart page where I can review the cost, and see that there is a line item for “private” (domains are registered with DomainsByProxy so your contact details are not available through WHOIS, which protects you from spammers). So I spend the next hour trying to figure out how I can remove this from the renewal as the cost is literally the same as the domains themselves…  And I can’t.  After much searching and swearing, it seems you have to have an account with DomainsByProxy to do so, and the admin cost (time primarily) associated with doing this is not worth the effort.

While the above paragraph is an attempt at a factual description of what happened, I’m totally angry with GoDaddy and won’t be using them to renew domains, nor buy new ones.  They’ve lost my business for good now, and over the course of the next year I’m going to go to the extra cost of transferring the 21 domains I have with them to my the domain registrar I use, which doesn’t do this.

This was the straw which broke the camel’s back.  Having to login twice on the same site to use the domain management area; not having an account with DomainsByProxy created automagically when I choose the “private” feature in the first instance; and being subjected to grossly obtrusive cross and up-sells were the other 3 straws…

Bob – I know you optimise, and try to eke out every last drop of revenue from each and every customer, but in a niche of much choice, you’ve made it easy to want to switch.  In the beginning you were the new kid on the block I wanted to support.  Now you’re the dude at the Johannesburg traffic lights trying to wash my car windows, take my rubbish and sell me mobile chargers all at once – while standing in front of the car.

So, some tips to would be GoDaddy users; people looking to buy domains:

  1. If you must use GoDaddy, don’t choose the “private” option when you register a domain.

Are you gonna do Earth Hour?

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It’s amazing what we as a species, are capable of doing through concerted, unified, synergised, actions… Imagine if the world could work in unison to make sure that the Earth was around for future generations? Well, this is something that can be done by all of us (imagine if we did it regularly), and it doesn’t need a government, or bureaucracy, or approval – just do it!

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Earth Hour – Saturday 28 March 2009, 8:30PM

The hour the world unites in a stand against global warming

Bold, simple and accessible, Earth Hour 2009 has one major aim: to show governments, individuals and businesses that it is possible to take action on global warming. The world can no longer wait; and the first step is as easy as turning off a light. In 2008, 50 million people across 35 countries switched off their lights for one hour. This year, in what we hope will be the world’s largest mass participation event, Earth Hour will be the culmination of one billion people around the globe, in more than 1000 cities from business, government and the community turning off lights as a message to leaders of the world in the run up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009 that we need a commitment to actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the short and long term benefit of the planet.

At a time when economic pressures are high, and anxiety about the worlds’ economic and environmental futures are burdening governments and its people, there could be no better time to advocate solutions driven action that will make a positive difference.

Earth Hour 2009 will be a major call to action for every individual, government and business to take responsibility and play a part in ensuring a sustainable future. Iconic buildings and landmarks across Africa, Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and The Americas will go dark. People will join together to celebrate, discuss and think about the future. Cities that have already signed up include: Sydney (Australia), London (UK), Rome (Italy), Dubai (UAE), Los Angeles (USA) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) among others.

  1. Companies will engage with staff and customers and reap the benefits of delivering genuine corporate social responsibility strategies
  2. Mayors and politicians on all sides of government will embrace the large scale recognition of such an importance public campaign and engage on the burning issues in their electorates
  3. School children across the globe will discuss Earth Hour in classrooms and at home with their families
  4. Parents will embrace the opportunity to defend their children’s future; and
  5. The internet generation will blog, email and text to rally friends to take part

WWF South Africa is planning an exciting national campaign to get 1 million dwellings and offices to switch off their lights and 3 million South Africans to sign up on www.earthhour.org.za.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has honoured us by agreeing to be the patron of Earth Hour 2009 and City of Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille has also pledged her support. To demonstrate South Africa’s commitment we will switch off the lights illuminating Table Mountain for an hour on 28 March.

Sign up now at www.earthhour.org.za and tell your friends and family to do the same.

Switch off on 28 March 2009, 8.30 to 9.30pm – at work as well as at home.

Already, through the extensive WWF International network, Earth Hour will be delivered in over 60 countries, the number growing each day. Our campaign needs your commitment – from participation, organisation or potential sponsorship. Earth Hour is a message of hope and action. Imagine what we can do if we act together.
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;-)

Spread the word: South Africans abroad can vote overseas

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Just in case you didn’t know:
The Constitutional Court ruled this morning that expatriate South Africans have the right to vote!

Only those already registered will be eligible to vote, and must notify the chief electoral officer of their intention to vote by March 27. The London Voting Station will be South Africa House/ SA High Commission.

To check if you are eligible to vote, visit:
https://www.elections.org.za/AmRegister/amregister.aspx.

Hat tip: SA Business Club newsletter

* Update – from the SA LegalBrief Today newsletter *

Constitutional: Registered expats cleared to vote
The Constitutional Court yesterday ruled unanimously that South Africans living abroad had the right to vote if they were registered. The court ruled that section 33 of the 1998 Electoral Act unfairly restricted the right to cast special votes while abroad to a very narrow class of citizens. It declared this section to be unconstitutional. As a result, all citizens who are registered voters, and who will be out of the country on 22 April, will be allowed to vote in the national (not provincial) elections ‘provided they give notice of their intention to do so, in terms of the Election Regulations, on or before 27 March to the Chief Electoral Officer and identify the embassy, high commission or consulate where they intend to apply for the special vote’. Handing down the first of two separate judgments, Justice Kate O’Regan said the right to vote had a symbolic and democratic value and those who were registered should not be limited by unconstitutional and invalid limitations in the Electoral Act. However, notes a report in The Times, a second judgment by Justice Sandile Ngcobo found that unregistered voters overseas could not vote. The limitations had been in effect since 2003 and the applicants had not explained why they had left the challenge so late. This follows an application by the Freedom Front Plus on behalf of a Pretoria school teacher working in the UK, as well as representation by the IFP, the DA, the A-Party, a lobby group, and an independent group of South Africans living overseas.

Political parties across the board have welcomed the ruling, according to an SABC News report. The Freedom Front Plus says it is a victory for democracy. Party leader Pieter Mulder said it was difficult to say whether the ruling would have an impact on the outcome of the elections, but that was not the point. DA chairperson James Selfe predicted that the ruling would improve the party’s performance in the elections: ‘We will benefit differentially from this decision,’ he said. The DA would in coming days decide whether to launch a separate legal bid to secure voters abroad the right to cast ballots for provincial governments as well. ‘It is a matter that we need to think through thoroughly.’ Figures had shown that most registered voters lived in the UK and the DA might extend its campaign to reach the large expatriate community there. According to a Mail & Guardian Online report, Selfe also said the DA was planning to bring forward new legislative proposals to clean up the whole business of the rights of South Africans abroad to vote. ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte is quoted as saying the ruling was in line with the ANC’s view that every effort should be made to ensure all South Africans, including those temporarily living abroad, be given an opportunity to cast their votes in elections.

The Independent Electoral Commission has no idea how many expatriates might vote, says a report in The Times. It notes more than 5 000 South Africans living abroad have already applied for a special vote, but the final number is anyone’s guess, the IEC’s chief electoral officer, Pansy Tlakula, has conceded.

Although the decision will not have a major impact on the elections, it is significant – both for the message it conveys to South Africans living abroad, and for what it says about the current state of our country today, writes political commentator James Myburgh on the Politicsweb site. He says the decision to disenfranchise overseas South Africans was a thoroughly mean-spirited one. The old ruling clique of the ANC clearly felt their departure to be some kind of rebuke – and so sought to punish them. In his affidavit to the Constitutional Court, IFP leader and former Minister of Home Affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, wrote that a senior official had explained the ANC’s rationale as follows: ‘They left us in the lurch and do not deserve to vote.’ This petty and vindictive attitude was carried over until recently. By contrast, writes Myburgh, Judge Kate O’Regan’s reasoning in the judgment is broadminded and generous. She noted that SA is now part of a global economy which allows citizens of this country to study and work abroad: ‘The experience that they gain will enrich our society when they return…. The evidence before us, too, shows that many South African citizens abroad make remittances to family members in SA while they are abroad, or save money to buy a house. To the extent that citizens engaged in such pursuits want to take the trouble to participate in elections while abroad, it is an expression both of their continued commitment to our country and their civic-mindedness from which our democracy will benefit.’ Hopefully, writes Myburgh, extending the right to vote to citizens abroad will foster a continued sense of belonging, and help keep alive the desire to return.

Persistence. Decision. Direction. Design. Patience. Results. Fitness. Salvation. Future.

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Today was another eureka moment for me.

I was in the gym, and to check I pulled myself up on the pullup bars. I did 3 pullups. I could also hang from the bars for 30 seconds without a problem. After my bodyweight workout I did an interval cardio run and it felt great. Better than I have in a long time. During the run I was thinking “What the crap is going on, this is great!?” and “What’s different? What have I changed to get here?”.

So I reflected on the last few years and this is what I came up with:

Firstly, I’ve got a long, long, long high road still to travel. This post is not about chest beating. This is about small inches that create momentum, which result ultimately in self knowledge and self reliance.

Ten years ago I played hockey 6 days a week, and ran a winder (1km on a hockey field) in 3 mins and 5 seconds. I wasn’t an elite full time athlete then, but I was close enough to compete with the best in my age group and province (who were also among the best in the country). In my mind I’m still 22…

Seven years ago I weighed in at 125kg (275.6 lbs or 19.7 stone), had a left ankle that was swollen and full of scar tissue, a left side weak from a broken collarbone, was drinking 2 or 3 cokes and eating 2 or 3 chocolate bars a day, I couldn’t touch my toes standing up, couldn’t run without getting shin splints, couldn’t do pullups or pushups, and sure as hell felt crap (and probably looked it too – when I look at old photos I wince, but that’s life). I look at that as my brute strength phase.

From three to four years ago I was working 18 hour days, 7 days a week, non-stop. Fitness and health wasn’t a priority. I can remember coming home one Friday night and tucking into a full tin of Pringles chips, a full huge Morrisons £3.99 chicken and bacon pizza, a half litre of diet coke, and two Magnum ice creams, while watching either Akira or one of the Ghost in the Shell movies. Then going on valiantly to do another few hours of work afterwards. Most of my friends had taken me off their social lists and being alone on weekends felt normal. That was also a brute strength phase.

Two years, and up to a year and a half ago, I had shoulders that wouldn’t let me lift my laptop bag more than waist height or open a kitchen cupboard (left shoulder, then right shoulder – both from falling while snowboarding and not being strong enough to carry the fall). I was probably about 110 / 112kg then. My overwhelming sense was that this wasn’t what I wanted for the rest of my life. There had to be another way. So I saw a physio for my shoulders, and started in earnest. I look at that as my decision phase.

A year ago I was doing curls, bench presses, shoulder raises and getting better at running. Shinsplints were still common when I pushed it, and I had dropped to about 108, getting to 106 when doing a lot of cardio. But something was missing and it didn’t make sense for all the effort I was putting in. Still, persistence carried through, and I started educating myself. It became obvious pretty quickly that despite my biological background, human physiology from 10 years ago wasn’t going to give me the answers – so I became a sponge. I look at that as my search for knowledge phase.

Today I tipped the scales at 101kg (that’s 222.2 lbs or 15.9 stone), but more importantly for me I was able to do 3 pullups in a row. I thought “I am getting stronger, I can lift my own weight!“. I haven’t been able to do that since my early twenties. But that in itself isn’t what this is all about – my eureka moment was that persistence and patience, through gradual design and conscious direction, has created results that have made me realise that I was my own worst enemy all along. So this evening I celebrate, but tomorrow I go back to work – I still have a long way to go. I look at this as my being smart sponge phase.

If you’re reading this, whatever you’re doing that you’re passionate about, or that you’re doing to change your life, don’t give up, don’t stop, don’t listen to anyone else – you won’t regret what you’ll learn or gain in the process.
;-)

FYI: How not to do customer support….

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I’m no expert, I’m a zoologist earning a crust on the web, but when this came into my Inbox today via a MyHeritage group mail, it made me happy as Larry as a competitor, but also made me wonder how Geni can expect to encourage users to stick with their service (when there is competition), when customer support on live public forums comes out like this:

_ Unjustified forum moderation « Geni Forum

I don’t see how threads that have degenerated to planning a boycott of geni or finding alternatives is really pertinent to the purposes of this forum. If this doesn’t suit you perhaps next time I’ll simply delete the threads.

Would you like some cheese with that whine, Sir?

I believe this is the thread that started it all: http://forum.geni.com/topic.php?id=37281.

My take home and advice is this: In any web endevour there will be competition no matter what you do or how unique you think you are, and your job as a company trying to make money from your users by providing them with a service, is to keep them happy, at ALL costs, ALL the time. Rackspace calls this “fanatical support”; Guy Kawasaki calls this “creating evangelists from your users”.

Common sense dictates that when your most valuable resource is your userbase, then listening, and acting accordingly, is what wins you loyalty and continued custom…

Ignore this at your peril.