The heavy cost of mismanagement.


By now Africans have learnt to live with disappointment. When yet another cherished dream turns sour, they shrug their shoulders and hope for a better day. But there is no disguising the deep sense of despair, even anguish that swept the continent when it became clear that one of Africa's biggest and most venerated commercial empires, South Africa's JCI, had collapsed barely one year after control had been acquired by a group of black entrepreneurs.

There are many reasons for this profound dismay. Compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa's economy is a giant. It is like comparing a small retail shop with a modern supermarket chain. The dream of all African countries is to expand their own small economies so that one day they may come somewhere closer to the status of South Africa. Only then could one even begin to imagine African economies on a par with the rest of the world.

Thus, as a symbol of what can be achieved on African soil, the South African economy is a shining beacon. But the South African economic structure has been created, built and managed by whites. The big question was, can blacks, given the opportunity, manage such complex structures? If the answer was yes, then it was reasonable to assume that blacks could, in time, learn to manage a vastly more complex and demanding structure -- the national economy. If the answer turned out to be no, then how could blacks successfully govern a country of the size and scope of South Africa?

Indeed, for decades, this was the main argument trotted out by supporters of the apartheid system in South Africa. They pointed out to the chaos in the rest of Africa and said that if African governments were unable to run small 'shops' successfully, how could they be expected to run whole 'industries'?

Thus, when several groups of ambitious and thrusting black entrepreneurs in South Africa started making a bid for their share of the big business pie, everybody sat up and took notice. When Mr Mzi Khumalo's African Mining Group successfully bought JCI from Anglo American, it seemed a new era had indeed begun.

After all, JCI was rock-solid. It was described at the time as 'fool-proof'. Its management structure was the envy of the rest of South African business. It could not fail. It did. Cause of failure? Mismanagement.

The exact how and why of the failure is still being studied. We publish an extended report on the subject in this issue. Nevertheless, whatever the finer details reveal...

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