In townships, we’ve always observed the common tragedy of family businesses that do well until the founding entrepreneur (typically the father) dies or is otherwise incapacitated, and then it becomes obvious that no one else had the necessary ability to keep the business going. I’ve had the privilege of observing this fairly closely.
The business doesn’t immediately stop trading. Family members typically start doing what they saw the founder do and for a moment, the business continues to look the way it always did, but we start observing some patterns that we’ve come to recognise as the last kicks of the dying horse:
- The older kids typically become like the ANC’s youth league: they wear expensive clothes, party a lot…. They become big spenders with no care in the world.
- Any of the immediate relatives who might have ideas for continuing the family legacy experiences resistance like Thabo Mbeki and fail to implement those ideas.
- The younger, more dependant, kids become like SASSA grant recipients who eventually learn to stage service delivery protests out of feeling neglected. Their bodies become ready to make babies sooner than they’re ready to become parents, and their hormones start a sexual itch and all the babies they make become the family’s problem.
- The mother, in her mourning clothes, becomes like the women’s league. You can’t tell whether she has any money or opinion at first, but you soon start hearing her saying wild stuff that makes you think she’s started drinking (you assume she didn’t drink all along).
- Family members who manage to secure jobs become like taxpayers who support the rest of the family.
- You see ruins where the business used to be.
While it’s obvious that the skill died with the founder, what’s not obvious is that the family always had secret wishes to drink, party, and express stuff that the founder didn’t approve of. While they’re in mourning, they also celebrate the newfound freedom to do stuff they had wished to do all along, which the founder objected to.
If we could rewind back to ten years before the founder passed on, knowing what we know now, we’d panic as soon as we saw that the father woke up alone at 3:30 AM every morning, received deliveries from the bakery and dairy vans, opened the tuck shop to catch the morning rush, managed the till, and basically ran the shop and only left to go and stock up more supplies… We’d panic because not only was this routine going to give him a stroke, high blood pressure, or something, his family never even met the supplier contact persons.
We’d panic because the family rode on his back, learning nothing; and he carried them, teaching nothing — not planning for his coming departure.
The ANC reminds me of such businesses. Nobody in that family seems to have operating knowledge of what its founders were doing in the early hours of the day. I can’t tell whether the family was sleeping or not, but I know that true leaders carried them and wisdom was never transferred. Those who were close to leadership didn’t get around to learning anything of substance that they might have delivered to the nation after the leader dies.
I hope the next generation won’t be retelling this same story twenty years from now; because it’s not too difficult to fix the system. People must just share their light as far as it can reach. We lose nothing by lighting the next person’s candle with ours. Something for African leaders: no president would go hungry if they served generously, limited themselves to their presidential salary, and served one or two terms only. Or, shall we say, the tuck shop founder would live longer if he just shared what he knows about running the business.