This blog is a muse. According to the dictionary, a muse is to “be absorbed in thought” or to “say to oneself in a thoughtful manner”. So that’s what this is, just some thoughts about two apparently unrelated matters. Read on, if you wish…

Nelson Mandela was born one hundred years ago on 18 July. I remember the date easily as his birthday is the day before my daughter’s so it’s easy to recall. It’s wonderful that we are again celebrating an amazing man and especially in this, his would-have-been, 100th-year.

But earlier this week, I received an sms that read: “It is our 100 year birthday month and Sanlam is inviting you to apply for a loan of up to R200000 to suit your financial needs…..”. So, it is Sanlam’s 100th-year celebration.

NOW isn’t that interesting! An Afrikaans investment company and an international icon “born” in the same year. How history chicanes in July 1918! [Just to explain how I am using the word “chicane” which I know from my days of playing Scalextric [and, no I’m not also approaching 100 years :-)], it is “a sharp double bend created to form an obstacle on a motor racing track”.] In my case, it was one track you could put anywhere but which formed a cross in the tracks. If you hit it at speed, your car would careen off the track. If you hit it at the same time as your opponent, you crashed and were very fortunate if you stayed on. But if you navigated it well, one thing was for sure, your car had changed lane for one round of the race and so the race was different, especially as you approached the bends. I never thought Scalextric would cause me to muse……..

One hundred years ago, the Afrikaner nation was a struggling people. Without historical advantage, this young nation began to self-determine and we know that in 1948, at the time of WW2, they won the election and the National Party came into power. However, by then Sanlam was a small but well-run insurance company competing with the likes of Old Mutual and various offshore companies, like Norwich, Prudential and Southern Life. Sanlam was no doubt in the genre of General Mining which was also an Afrikaner mining investment company. There they competed with Anglo American and JCI, the latter of Barney Barnato fame. I’m sure by 1948 and definitely beyond, other great industries were beginning to build as parastatals, the most notable of which were Iscor and Eskom. Later on, Sasol and the weapons industry expanded rapidly and we were building helicopters and G5 cannon before I went to the army in 1973.

During these decades, we built the harbours, roads, and railways into world-class, government-owned infrastructures which were certainly the envy of Africa. Sanlam has always stuck to her core, insurance and investment, and has grown into a global company with deep roots in the JSE – no attempt to launch on the LSE here; pure South African. Three stories I can tell about Sanlam; one, that they recruited me from Caltex in about 1978. The strategy was to “get more English-speaking clients” and so they had these “English” teams. It seems that “English speakers” rather did their insurance in companies where they were understood. It was from Sanlam, that I transferred to Trust Bank, for the same reason, when I decided to exit selling insurance, and thus began my career in banking and my eventual realization that I loved People, Finance and Sales – these becoming what I call “career principles”.

The other story is that I was situated In Sanlam Centre in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg. Huge, high and markedly black and white vertically striped, it was the tower of its time; it stood in stark contrast to the “vaal” concrete facades of the Carlton Centre. A final story as I muse along. At the time that Sanlam and Old Mutual demutualized in terms of amended Banking legislation, I went with two senior colleagues from Nedbank head office to the Sanlam head office in Belville, Cape Town. Soft air-conditioning, plush carpets, and mammoth offices grace this 7th floor. We sat prepared to present our case for share securitization of new shareholders’ shares and were waiting for another Sanlam GM when a person in a three-piece suit and tie entered the room. Like the good employee [read: boy ] I always was, I jumped up and greeted the entrant with a hearty “Goeie more, my naam is Jack Trevena” and was greeted in return with the question, “Wil Meneer koffie of tee he?” Well, needless to say, my colleagues mocked me onto the plane and off and for years afterward. I’m sure there are other wonderful anecdotes and stories amongst our readers but here is a company, born from the economic crisis of the Afrikaner nation, celebrating 100 years of business success. Their sms triggered an emotion in me that business is business and the only thing a good business knows is to keep selling, in this case, personal loans, so as to secure another 10 years and beyond. In doing so, it has employed and pensioned off tens of thousands of people over the years.

We turn to Nelson Mandela but I’m going to use a far more remarkable message than my own musings to convey my thoughts about this great man. Suffice to say I admire him immensely. Having read three of his books, I remain in awe that a man, and in his own words “just a man”, could exit 27 years of prison and chose to reconcile. He was not bought off nor did he not have the stomach for further fighting, he simply believed that forgiveness, like love, could cover a multitude of sins. In doing so, he ceased a civil war, brought democracy into being, and paved the way for a just and equitable society. If I listen to the endorsement of Kathrada, Bezos, Ramaphosa and other well-intentioned, reputable people of the methods and negotiations he deployed, I’m more saddened by those who malign Nelson Mandela as a sell-out. He didn’t sell out to anybody; he knew that destroying the country in a civil war would be the greatest opportunity cost of our history and in keeping this country intact, he negotiated the best opportunity for political freedom to become economic freedom in our lifetimes. That we have largely squandered the opportunity in corruption, nepotism, patronage, and greed is the enigma of the times in which we live. It’s not about “only 24 years in a young democracy so give us a chance”, rather it’s about the absence of stewardship in favour of the Poor. Just looking at Carte Blanche on Sunday and seeing that just 5 out of 646 hospitals passed their audit tells me that we have failed to steward even what was there and functional in the first place. With that angry muse over, let’s turn to Thabo Makgoba , the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa, and his address during the evening prayer service commemorating second anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela on December 06, 2015 in Cape Town. 

As we celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, how should we remember him?

The good that Madiba stood for is unparalleled in our lifetime. He was extraordinary, an icon of peace and reconciliation who appealed to a sense of common humanity among all people. But he was a human being like all of us, vulnerable and fallible. He smiled, he joked, he was funny, he was jealous, he frowned, and he got angry. He feared death and obscurity. He doubted, he coerced, he outmaneuvered.

Developing wisdom, strength and grace in the face of adversity and great challenge, while Madiba was no saint in the traditional Christian sense, he was a symbol of holiness. By that I mean one who is set apart but is able to hold oneself and others accountable to a greater Being, and to draw people together based on a vision for the common good. His vision was for a free, democratic, non-racial world in which we are all afforded equal opportunities and are freed from poverty, marginalization, and dis-empowerment. Is this vision realisable and, if so, how? My answer is yes, of course it is. But we need to consider carefully how to deploy his legacy.

In considering Madiba’s legacy, there is, on the one hand, a danger that we will romanticise him and his achievements in a way that leaves us ill-equipped to meet the challenges of times very different to those in which he lived. His policies and solutions are not necessarily solutions and policies that are appropriate a quarter of a century later. On the other hand, there is also a danger that we will judge him and his legacy with no regard to the context in which he lived and struggled. I am sad when I see young people attacking Madiba’s legacy and claiming he “sold us out” by not building us the Promised Land in his lifetime.

We ought not to take the events of history and look at them through the lenses of today’s eyes. When we do, we are bound to be insensitive to the realities that our forebears faced and to pass naïve and shallow judgments on their achievements. We need to remember that 30 years ago, as Madiba entered discussions ahead of his release, then began negotiations with apartheid leaders, our country was at war. Historians describe it as a low-intensity civil war but for us and those communities who saw thousands of men, women, and children killed it was most definitely a high-intensity war. And if you want to end a war you don’t do it through more war – especially when your forces, in this case, MK and APLA, have no prospect of military victory any time soon.

Madiba and his fellow leaders had to make compromises to end the war, and yes, we are feeling the impact of those compromises today. But they had to be made for the sake of peace and for the luxury of being alive to look back and criticise them. As it was, our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, made huge sacrifices for our liberation for most, if not all, their lives.

If you question what they achieved, then look at Syria today, where more than a quarter of a million people have been killed, more than six million have been forced to flee the country and another six million have been driven from their homes and displaced within the country. Or look at South Sudan, where freedom fighters fell out with one another two years after achieving their independence and went to war. Five years later, the international community is still trying to cajole them to make peace. Four million people have been uprooted from their homes, and two million of them are refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries.

If the leaders of Madiba’s generation had not made the compromises they did, would we have time, or even be alive, to criticise them? Rather than look backward at what we cannot change, let us rather look forward and focus on what we can change. Our forebears brought us into the Promised Land: It is up to us now to build it. We need to focus on the challenges of today, raise them to a higher level and re-negotiate how we move our country forward to deal with the horrendous inequality we still suffer.

We need to end inequality of opportunity. We need to put justice at the heart of what we seek to achieve and be sacrificial in redistributing that which God has given to all South Africans to benefit the poorest of the poor – who seem to be ignored in the current debates. Above all, we need to become courageous like Madiba, wise like Madiba, and take the debates and decisions over the structuring of the economy and the distribution of land to a higher level and ensure apt policy to achieve these.”

I truly could not say it better than a man who probably knew the icon personally.

There we have it. Two great institutions, secure in what they stand for and what they believe. Both 100-years old, one a legal entity with the capacity to live on as long as it secures its financial success and the other, an amazing man who restored our propensity to be a great, united nation. His is a legend of immense proportions and his stated intention, so aptly described by Archbishop Makgoba, was to create the platform with FW de Klerk, for nation-building. Way beyond the foto at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, lay the opportunity for us to secure our Peoples’ complete freedom; the platform he created was the springboard to an amazing nation.

In a sense, these two institutions represent the Scalextric chicane. To have approached the obstacle gung-ho could have derailed both of them – political chaos and economic chaos, ala Syria, would have resulted. Trying to survive the crash would have been too risky and so Nelson Mandela and his team negotiated while Sanlam [read: the entire business and social community] looked on anxiously. We all know what happened as the vehicles slowed down to let the other cross – deliberate, intentional and thinking about the ultimate finishing line – determined to win but with a win-win attitude. Thank Goodness they all succeeded in the end and that even Pretoria’s bombing and Chris Hani’s assassination could not derail them. But one thing is for sure, in getting through the chicane, the entities are driving on the other side of the track than before.

The road has changed irreversibly and navigating the different bends is the new challenge. Some, seemingly interminably unhappy with the outcome, seem set to disparage and disrupt. Others rally around the new ANC leadership in the hope of clawing back the lost opportunity. The world watches on; another failed African state or the inimitable ability to rise from the ashes? Oh, as my muse draws to a close, how I long to see this beautiful country rise to her full potential; how her People deserve to be rewarded after years of short-sighted, self-imposed hardship!

Our property market is locked up in the outcome. Crash-and-burn, or survive or thrive – each outcome in every corner of SA Inc. lies before us. In the words of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Yours in Property.

Jack Trevena
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