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We should positively exploit our favoured position

by John Powell: Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
I don’t see how the dependence of South Africa upon high resource levels makes its growth path unsustainable.

Of course in the next few decades we will be dependent on extraction and second stage processing, but if we are to take a narrow, 25-year horizon, we will make the mistake of rushing to a long-term sustainability position which is not, in the short term, viable! Two quotes come to mind: “In order to get to next week you have to survive tomorrow” and “The shadow of the future is long.” I have little patience for the (minority) sustainability ideologues who seem to want fully sustainable zero-carbon loading policy positions now “because there is only one earth and we are acting as if we had access to two.” Of course that is the long-term position and may well be the desired position that many of the developed countries, particularly the US and China ought to adopt, but here in SA I believe policy should utilise the fact that (with only slight exaggeration) we are, mineralogically speaking, an archipelago of islands of diamonds, coal, manganese, uranium and gold. And that’s a problem because ultimately it will all run out…? I hardly think so. It’s a glass-half-empty issue.

No, we should be laying plans to exploit the favoured position in which we find ourselves, accepting that, of course, in the long run we need to move to a resource-sustainable position, but that in the meantime we should positively exploit our favoured position in order to fund what seems to me to be the real sustainability crisis, namely... knowledge sustainability.

See, we can’t grow more diamonds, or coal or manganese, but we can grow knowledge. SA and Africa in general has always been seen as a place where the developed world comes to grab raw materials and, particularly poignantly, human bodies. To say that our high resource usage is a problem rather than the gift of a path to transformation is to accept the developed world’s view of SA as a supermarket for raw materials and labour. What Africa needs in order to escape that ‘supermarket paradigm’ is to become sustainable in knowledge, in know-how, in IPR. Africa needs to develop know-how which derives from the African experience and which, therefore, requires African cognition to make sense of it. If we can do that, though utilising the temporary exploitation of our mineralogical gifts, we can create a new raw material (knowledge) which truly is sustainable.

Dubai tried to do it but got caught up in an extreme capitalist economic model. Our challenge is to create the conditions for the creation of African specific, generalisable knowledge without encountering the crises inherent in the Dubai model.

Useful resources:
University of Stellenbosch Business School
The internationally accredited University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership.
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