My conclusion after 530,000km of travelling in South Africa

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A recent report by Boston Consulting Group compared South Africa to its global peers: Algeria, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Peru, Indonesia

Really? Algeria is a peer of our? Egypt?

Apparently our advanced peer group comprises countries with GDP/capita 200% greater than SA and includes Brazil, Chile, Malaysia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

Anyone who has travelled to any of these countries (I have been to 7 of the 11, and the other 4 are include Algeria and Sri Lanka which I’m pretty sure are not as awesome as SA) knows that they don’t compare to SA.

There seems to be something wrong in the way we’re measuring ourselves against the world and it results in us underestimating the awesomeness of our country.

Over the past 18 months my COO and I have travelled South Africa stukkend, flying over 500,000km, driving over 30,000km, reaching 9 provinces and visiting 49 towns.

In the process we’ve seen a lot of South Africa and we’ve met many South Africans. Tswana, Pedi, Sotho, Basotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Afrikaner, Tsonga, and even some souties.

We’ve also seen some of the most rural places in the country with some of the worst roads. The Swartberg pass to Die Hel is 40km and takes 2hours in a 4×4.

Lusikisiki is 3hrs drive from the closest airport, Mtata, and there are only 2 flights to Mtata per day. Cement in Lusikisiki is 2.5 times more expensive than in Gauteng.

Living in cities like Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town its easy to be oblivious to what the rest of SA is like.

It can be pretty bleak. Rural SA seems to be full of rundown towns packed with poverty-stricken families desperate for jobs. You can almost see the urbanisation happening before your eyes, leaving behind hollowed out towns from the Limpopo to the Karoo.

On the other hand, we have epic infrastructure everywhere. Giant electricity pylons, telephone cables, tarred roads, reservoirs, microwave towers, base stations, railway lines.

We have roadstops on our highways. Roadstops! I drove 15,000km across the USA and never saw a tree with a table under it next to a highway. The N1 is R1,199km long but you can’t drive 10km without seeing a sign like this:

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One of the best things of SA is that we never see signs saying “EU project”. We don’t rely on foreign aid. Go to countries like Lesotho, Bosnia, Cambodia, Jordan, Ukraine, Tanzania, India, Ethiopia and dozens of others and every dam or power plant or school is accompanied by a sign stating who the donor was.

South Africa funds its own infrastructure. We don’t rely on handouts. We have our own revenues. Big revenues.

Where do these revenues come from? Taxes. Mostly from big business (corporate tax and PAYE on behalf of staff), and mostly from Gauteng.

If we were to compare SA provinces to EU states, Gauteng is like Germany, the Western Cape & KZN are like Britain & France, and the rest are like southern Europe. Charity cases.

Gauteng is the engine that powers SA. Without Gauteng, the Eastern Cape would not have roads.

At a micro level the disparity is even more striking. The major metros (Jhb, Pta, CT and Durban) generate 75% of their own income, whilst smaller municipalities rely on national government for 70% of their revenues. The poorest districts rely on national government for 100% of their funding.

The cities are the engines that power the towns. Without Johannesburg we wouldn’t have Zoar.

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Yet our politicians never threaten to cut loose Ladysmith until it gets its finances in order. No European drama for us. For all our faults as a country, our leaders get it.

We’re all in it together. Whilst we have a vague idea that in some way the economy benefits by having these seemingly uneconomical provinces and towns, we totally buy into the idea that “every man for himself” is not a viable strategy in a country filled with inequality.

Make no mistake, the gap between the haves and have-nots is a gaping chasm.

There are times when I read stories of such unbearable injustice that I want to move to Switzerland so I can pretend the world is perfect.

But the world is not Switzerland. Nor is it Malawi. Its not rich or poor. Its rich and poor. The world is South Africa. Unequal. Rich people. Poor people. First world roads. Goats on the roads.

We’re lucky to be able to confront 3rd world reality on daily basis and be reminded of how much we have to be grateful for, and we’re even more lucky to have the 1st world skills and tools to make a difference.