There’s nothing like being forced out of your comfort zone to give you new ideas and inspiration. And what better way than rapid immersion in not just another business environment, but another culture?
This was the opportunity I was given on a recent visit to South Africa together with a group of business leaders from Denmark. Just a few hours after stepping off the long flight from Europe, we were released into Durban’s Central Business District. It’s a far cry from the sterile, grayscale business district of a northern European city. Colors and sounds line the pavements. People swarm over intersections, dodging the taxi vans, busses and occasional car. It’s an eclectic mix of cultures where urban dwellers dominate, but there are still plenty of people with obviously strong tribal roots.
For the next few hours, we explored the district, interacting with people to learn about their businesses and lives as best we could, sometimes in English, sometimes through an interpreter, and almost always with wild hand gestures.
Powerful business community
The vibrancy of the place continued unabated, yet curiously each street had a slightly different feel. Shoppers can purchase everything they need in their daily lives, from big-brand clothes to spices and fresh produce to electrical hardware – and ancient African spiritual remedies. (You couldn’t help but see many different-sized imeyili – for the full bodily cleansing experience.)
As we navigated the several kilometers through the district, the power of this business community revealed itself. There was order to the chaos of more than 8000 pavement traders and a half million people who pass through the thriving ecosystem every day, contributing to an annual turnover of around USD 85 million dollars.
What was unmistakably clear was that each pavement stall was a serious business, whether you were buying clothes from Zain or a natural herbal remedy to ward off enemy spirits from Nonkonzo. It was both eye opening and humbling talking to MaNgubane, who had singlehandedly put her children through school using only the income she received from her stall. Now, her children are in university and pursuing professional careers. It’s one of the best stories I’ve heard about moving up the social ladder.
Then there’s Pam who has run a successful African craft shop in the Victoria Street Market for many years. She doesn’t just sell to make a living for herself, she supports a group of women hundreds of kilometers away in the African outback who supply her beads. She trains these women in how to make the bead jewelry that can end up in homes all over the world. Pam’s concept of the value chain was crystal clear. Every piece of craft I saw innocuously hanging in a stall suddenly took on a new meaning.
Each stall is a business in its own right, with its survival inextricably connected to the survival of the neighboring stalls. Traders keep a watchful eye on neighbors’ stalls as well as their own. It struck me that the success of this business environment depended very much on personal leadership. This ecosystem survives not because of one leader, but because of the personal leadership demonstrated by thousands of individuals. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own business, but they also need to appreciate their role in the entire system.
This attitude of responsibility and standing up for one’s own rights was aptly demonstrated by John Khomo, who ran a small shoe trading stall. He told us how he was fighting a legal case over fifty pairs of shoes, of course all through the proper legal channels. “I will continue my business whether I win or lose,” he said, “but it’s the principle that’s important.”
Our brief, but highly impressionable, exploration of Durban’s CBD concluded by being driven in one of the thousands of taxi vans to a local shack-dwelling community. We were a highly conspicuous group, walking through the community of tin shacks, our comfort zone still being stretched. But a few drinks at a pub watching football (soccer) with the locals continued our cultural immersion. Our actual arrival in the country earlier that day was now a distant memory.
Not only did we realize how privileged and fortunate we were, but we also knew that our understanding of leadership, responsibility, community, partnership, supply chain and other business principles had just taken on another perspective. Here, thanks must go to our hosts, Lead with Humanity, who knew how to push us beyond our limits – and bring us safely back again.
I’d like to look up John Khomo again to see what progress he’s made with his legal battle. Whatever the outcome, I reckon I’ll find him on the same street corner.
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