South Africa’s global ‘brain bank’

9 January 2008

Priceless human capital has left South Africa. The Homecoming Revolution and skills-hungry employers are trying to get it back. Global South Africans, a complementary initiative by the International Marketing Council of SA, is harnessing the capital where it now resides.

The Global South Africans (GSA) project is being piloted in the United States. The aim is to build a worldwide network or “brain bank” of a thousand or so of the best and brightest minds in the South African diaspora and connect them to where they can make a difference back home.

Membership recruited in the US since April 2007 stands at 120. The recruits might not be coming home just yet, but they are useful where they are. They have knowledge, deep Rolodexes, the respect of their peers, and the capacity to mobilise resources. Important people take their calls. They are willing to put those assets to work for a country to which they still feel strongly attached.

An impressive cast
It is an impressive cast. Members indude Pieter de Villiers, founder and president of Clickatell, the SMS messaging innovator; Stanley Bergman, chief executive of Fortune 500 firm Henry Scheinand Co, the largest dislributor of health care products in the US; Bain Capital principal John Tudor, who drove Bain’s acquisition of Edgars; Khayapa Molapo, vice-president of Merrill Lynch Global Markets; and Lara Logan, CBS News chief foreign correspondent.

There is a strong business and finance orientation to the network, but as Logan’s inclusion suggests, GSA is casting a wider net. We have members from the entertainment industry, but would like more. A significant proportion of South Africans living in the US are in medicine and academia, and this is reflected in GSA’s membership.

Professor Daniel Bradlow, for example, directs the international legal studies programme at American University in Washington. He is developing a sophisticated debt instrument that will enable South Africans abroad to invest in job-creating projects in poor communities back home.

Dr Michael Levy came to Washington in the mid-1980s from Johannesburg’s Wits Medical School, interned at DC General Hospital – the local equivalent of Chris Hani Baragwanath – and then went on to found one of the best known in vitro fertilisation clinics in the US.

Levy has been keen to give something back to South Africa. At one point he offered to arrange donations of used but still top of the line medical equipment to South African hospitals. His offer got lost in the bureaucracy. Now he is interested in doing some pro bono teaching in South Africa – and recruiting colleagues from his substantial database to do the same. Global South Africans will help him to make the right connections.

Skills development back home
The network is expected to make an important contribution to skills development. Members will get the chance to adopt schools, place South African students in US universities, offer internships in their companies, help graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds develop connections in the world of work, and give lectures and seminars when they are in South Africa.

The network will play a significant role in promoting South African entrepreneurs and innovators, spread word of what South Africa has to offer, give strategic advice, and help find partners and finance. We see members opening doors for trade missions from the official and private sector.

Some might be able to help South African exporters make fuller use of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Others will promote investment in South Africa.

The list of possible contributions is limitless, and it would be rash to dictate in advance what the network should produce. Networks are like brains, whose neurons connect in unexpected ways to produce previously unimagined insights and ideas. What is important is that South Africans know that the resource is out there, waiting to be tapped.

A human interface
Work is still being done on the interface between the network and whoever wants to access it. While the initiative will be web-enabled, it will not be web-dependent like the SA Network of Skills Abroad, a website where South Africans abroad can post their credentials and contact details on an online database. GSA, by contrast, will have human beings acting as intermediaries between the network and its customers.

At present those human beings are myself and Lee Gillespie-White, an attorney formerly with Bell, Dewar and Hall. John Battersby, former editor of the Sunday Independent, will start recruiting in the United Kingdom.

The diaspora has a major impact on how South Africa is perceived abroad by investors and others. The fact that successful and influential expatriates want to continue being a part of the South African story sets an important example and sends a positive signal.

The more expatriates feel part of Team South Africa, the better they will play for Team South Africa.

Simon Barber is the IMC’s country manager in the US. This article was first published in the Mail & Gaurdian.