Can we save South Africa?

by Esther Etkin
Author and former Deputy Director-General for the Scorpions, Ruben Richards, says yes – but we’ll need to change our mindsets first.

While most sit back and complain about crime and corruption, Ruben Richards decided to do something about it. As the former Deputy Director-General for the Scorpions puts it in the preface to his book, “instead of just mumbling abuse about easy targets such as our underperforming and sometimes corrupt politicians, and instead of walking around depressed and disillusioned with the current state of affairs, I thought it wiser to channel my energies towards making a positive contribution towards solving our problems and challenges…”

And so he wrote Bullets or Ballots: The ultimate solution to crime and unemployment in South Africa (Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust, 2010) – a book calling for nothing less than a “revolution of the mind”; the need to create a new collective psyche if we’re going to change our beloved country.

“South Africa has everything required to be the wealthiest nation in the world – we have gold, platinum, natural minerals; we have Nobel Peace Prize winners and gravitas when it comes to leadership (excluding some examples of the last few years, of course); we have the most progressive constitution in the world; we have brilliant policies; we celebrate enormous cultural diversity and are essentially at cultural peace with each other,” he says. “So what’s the problem?”

For Richards, it’s a matter of mindset. “History teaches us that nations move from poverty to prosperity through industrial development,” he argues. “Yes, we have the policies in place. But, the mindset of our people and leaders is missing that all-important ingredient known as ‘industrial consciousness’.”

So, the book offers a six-part emergency rescue plan to address this critical shortage, as well as other suggestions for a successful South Africa. “I talk about how no politician or civil servant should be allowed to benefit from a government contract, for example, as this is the surest way to fix corruption. There are many other such practical suggestions, which I suspect won’t go down too well with those benefiting at the moment,” he admits.

The father of two is used to ruffling feathers, saying it like he sees it. It is simply about fostering debate and a little bit of soul-searching among the nation for Richards – especially where a sense of entitlement or disillusionment has crept in. At a recent event in Cape Town, he told young entrepreneurs: “Don’t trade your colour for competence. Make sure you’re appointed because you’re good; not because you’re black. Your blackness can be a bonus later.”

And Richards knows what he’s talking about. The former factory worker, who used to earn R18 a week, went on to get four degrees across three different countries in under nine years. “My wife and I sold everything we owned to pursue higher education. We even sold wedding presents and slept on a mattress on the ground for years,” he shares about his journey from apprenticeship to doctorate. “We only bought our first new couch in the 18th year of marriage – and still have it!”

Not bad for someone who only gained entry into university on the basis of an age exemption – his Matric results weren’t good enough. “Because of my poor academic track record at high school, I was put on a six-year programme for a degree that normally takes three. I finished my degree in two and a half years, which opened up opportunities to study in USA, Switzerland and Germany... I eventually completed my PhD at UCT.”

As for our current generation of young people, Richards says we need to cultivate this same sense of hard work that’s missing – and contributing to the low levels of entrepreneurship in the country. “We need to set up an employment agency for school kids to enable them to at least work as waiters, trolley handlers, even mopping floors in shopping malls. We need to make it compulsory for youth to have part-time jobs – that’s where the notion of work ethic starts,” he believes.

And getting people working – particularly in scarce skills jobs – is key for the future of SA, believes Richards, who says: “the new apartheid will be between those who have a job and those who don’t.”

As he argues in his book: “We need a blue collar army in order for the economy to grow. But, the reality is that it’s not cool to be a blue-collar person... What if we attached a lot more importance to this kind of work? I was a tradesman and proud of it. It’s this level of pride that’s required and must be modelled in our society. Unfortunately, our leaders are not doing this. In short, it’s all about the value we attach to a job that determines whether or not people are interested in pursuing it.”

Concludes Richards: “People don’t realise that doctors, lawyers, bankers don’t grow an economy. They may help manage the growth, but the skills that grow an economy belong to the tradesmen – the everyday South African.”

For more information about Bullets or Ballots: The ultimate solution to crime and unemployment in South Africa, visit www.rubenrichards.co.za.  

This article originally appeared on Howzit MSN
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