Leader.co.za - Management, Training and Career Advice for Business Leaders

12 JUNE 2013
All-rounder puts success down to education
by Sam Mkokeli

Photo: Twitter.com
From his clutter-free seventh floor office, Edward Kieswetter, group CE of Alexander Forbes, has a crisp view of the skyscrapers and the skyline that make the financial services hub that Sandton is.

That clear view is matched by his lucid mind, as he discusses with a silver tongue a wide array of topics, from education to development economics.

Mr Kieswetter is of a rare breed. Not only is he a recipient of three masters degrees, but he also has the handy background of having held a senior post in government, and is now occupying the dizzy heights of the financial services sector, as head of Alexander Forbes.

The former deputy commissioner at the South African Revenue Service was early this month inducted as chancellor of the Da Vinci Institute, a private university that seeks to develop strong managers. In this role, he plans to shape the institute’s focus, building a culture and capability that is required in the world of knowledge economies, he says.

Mr Kieswetter is a man of many talents. He is a handyman and an engineer who designs not only his own children’s 21st birthday keys — he also designed his Johannesburg home.

Education and skills inoculate people against poverty and associated social ills, he says.

"I can work with my hands. I will never be unemployed because I can take a piece of timber and convert it to furniture.

"I can take a piece of metal and create a tool. I can take some bricks and mortar and build a house. I can work with my hands. Where did I learn that? I learnt that at school and through my apprenticeship," he says.

His new role as chancellor allows him to contribute to design the future of many professionals so that South Africa’s economy and broader society can benefit.

"Education is the primary differentiating factor that put Singapore on the map, put South Korea on the map, put Taiwan and the Asian tigers on the map," Mr Kieswetter says.

But South Africa got a few things wrong, something that has created a mismatch between the desired economic goals and the practical realities of a potentially successful country, which is now struggling to take off.

"Twenty years after democracy, many South Africans’ lives have not meaningfully changed. It doesn’t help to have BEE (black economic empowerment) deals that create a couple of millionaires and billionaires. I’m not saying don’t have that (BEE). If it doesn’t change life for the ordinary man in the township, the kid in the township, what good is that?"

But the biggest problem is in education, he says.

"If we fail in education, we fail society. We let our young people down, we condemn them to a life of poverty, and sadly with that a life of substance abuse, a life of youth delinquency: a youth of violent crimes.… Sadly, there is a correlation between education, poverty and substance abuse."

He says millions "disappear in the school system" as they drop out, with only "one out of every four getting to university".

While the dropout rate is high, the education system is still not producing school-leavers with employable skills.

Most critical is the failure to produce enough mathematics and science graduates, he says.

"Our entire education feeder system is so far deficient to provide the human capability and capacity we require," he says.

This enforces a dilemma as South Africa hunts for that elusive "inclusive growth", trying to keep up with a modern world of digital knowledge economies — a dream which is hampered by an education system that fails the youth and broader society.

"Think about the level of dropouts, our high school dropout rate. You have to ask yourself what happens to those kids, in a society where there are so many dysfunctional and fragmented resource-deficient families, you now amplify that by not creating at least the one safe haven for a kid, which is a good school.

"You still have many township kids who live in a resource-deficient community, who then go to a school where you don’t have a structured environment for learning and development, for setting standards, for creating vision, for creating hope," he says.

"So you end up with a million kids who don’t even get to matric, who drop out, who have no prospect of employment, no prospect of making a meaningful contribution in an economy, who therefore perpetuate the cycle of under-employment.

"We don’t have a generation of kids who say: ‘We can change this.’ They come out and say: ‘We are doomed.’ Those who finish school cannot take up the work South Africa needs undertaken. More kids must leave school with the ability to create — and not look for — employment," he says.
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