Posts Tagged ‘Johannesburg’

To talk to strangers, or to avoid really talking to strangers, the British have the weather. In Johannesburg, what the South Africans have instead is “the traffic”. The state of the roads, the amount of traffic on them, debates about road usage and improvements, the advent of toll charges and the seemingly insurmountable topic of the amount of time that it takes to get from A to B, and at what time of day, are what forms the safe subject for any chat.

Jo’burg has invested a lot in its road system in recent years. The World Cup finals were a big part of this on the highways, but they have also systematically replaced many of the chuggering, smoke-blowing old buses and regulated what was a decrepit and corrupt network of privately owned licensed mini-buses with a modern and corrupt network of licensed minibuses. The minibuses are the main means of transport to and from work for thousands of Jo’burgers, and they can be ruthless in their road tactics.

Some countries have road rage to deal with but this city once had serious road crime, with not infrequent car-jackings and armed theft, though this seems to have gone now. Yet the roads remain a staple of conversation and dictate what time things start and stop, what sacrifices people need to make to arrive for important things (such as their jobs, or MBA workshops) on time. The city is spreading and the middle classes are demanding safe housing on new gated estates at the fringes of the sprawl. But the infrastructure doesn’t keep up, and what might once have been quiet suburban roads have become choked single-lane routes that now feed the (finally) free-moving freeways. South Africans call traffic lights “robots”, and these too have been the victim of crime here in the past.

But this is a terrific city. It feels big and wide (it is that, for sure) and full of light. The hills roll on and reveal gentle dips with greenery and streams, and the earth is variously the most fantastic shades of ochre, red, orange and rust. The sky stretches out over it and feels twice the size of the sky in the UK and there is always the feeling (in my mind) that these roads, cluttered though they may be, would eventually lead one out into a massive and fascinating continent full of possibility, culture and history (social and natural) and – above all  – stories.

We start our workshop tomorrow bright and early. We’ll be leaving the hotel at 7 a.m. To avoid the traffic. And have something to talk about.


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It’s always a pleasure to come and run workshops here in South Africa, in Johannesburg. This must be my seventh or eighth time here in about six years and I always marvel at the sense of space and the promise (despite the problems) that the region has. This particular visit is slightly different in that the time of year means coming from dark, autumnal Britain to hot and summer-like climate, where the trees are all in bloom and the skies are big and (for the most part, since Jo’burg has spectacular thunderstorms) blue.

Another difference is that the workshop I’ve been running is not at the start of the MBA (fresh faces, eager and nervous minds) but a group coming to the end of their Stage 1 work. Still a big group, it’s a pleasure to work with people who have stretched themselves and, in many cases, had unexpected results in the first year.

Also different is the fact that, really for the first time, Henley in South Africa is not located in someone else’s building, with shared resources and problems. Newly located next to one of the recently up-graded motorway routes between Jo’Burg and Pretoria, the setting is good for business and the fact that all the classroom space is only for Henley’s use, and is well constructed and full of natural light, makes the whole feeling so much more… well, more Henley, really. Sure, there’s no river, but what a difference it makes to have a place of your own to call home.

Yet another novelty for me this trip was the chance to go and make a short presentation (which I turned into a workshop) for the managers of a company called AVUSA (publishing and media). The “chance” was mediated slightly by the fact that the timing meant getting off an 11 hour overnight flight and driving straight to the company, but luckily everyone was quite understanding. The people there were, in fact, great, and very open to the idea of Reflection (what else would be my topic?). At the end, they presented me with a lovely biography of Mandela. On the way to their company, my driver took me through the district in Jo’Burg where Madiba has his residence – and it is a really lovely area (their version of Hampstead, perhaps?).

I always like to compare progress between visits. A shallow and restricted comparison, I understand, since I do not see much of the country when I’m here, but since I am always able to compare the same thing, I can report that there is continued development here – the infrastructure is more in place, the systems more reliable and the sense of unease (at least in some areas) and fear of crime has improved somewhat. Where people were openly planning to leave SA a few years ago, the debate has become much more of a dilemma and the tide sometimes turns the other way. One thing’s for sure, at some point I will want to explore more of the openness and potential of this country as a visitor.  Some things don’t change, of course. The South Africans are sports crazy, and the performance of the cricket team against Australia was woven into the PD workshop yesterday.

There’s a big topic of debate in education at the moment around the status of the MBA. The education ministry is considering a proposal to rate the MBA down from “level 9” (which would designate the MBA as a master’s degree requiring an honours degree for entry – and an honours degree here in SA means having completed a fourth year of university, which of course many managers won’t have done) to “level 8”. There would be pros and cons for Business Schools of this, mostly to do with programme financing in public universities, but the business schools are lobbying for the current situation to continue. At least, I think that’s what they’re doing – it’s complicated…!

Now I must get back to the PhD…

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We all know how important first impressions are – so much is communicated, even if it is never surfaced. It’s funny how, after a period of absence, re-acquaintance with a place or a person can re-form that first impression and allow you to contrast it (albeit from memory) to your second or, in this case, third impression.

So here I am once more in Johannesburg, bleary eyed after a day spent awake after a night spent awake on a plane. But through the bleariness I can see that in the last 12 months plenty has changed in many ways since March 2008.  The airport is well on its way to 2010 readiness (big clue: the World Cup) and the route of the planned fast-link railway to the commercial centre of Sandton is under full construction. There is actually construction everywhere, and somehow the roads seem less , though still just as congested. But even these choked highways are being widened, and there is  a sense of greater order than my last visit.  I’ll see whether this feeling is substantiated or countered over the coming week or so.

Tomorrow we launch the third MBA intake with the new curriculum here in South Africa, and we are expecting somewhere between 70 and 80 managers to turn up. It’s going to be quite a challenge to deliver a memorable day one!

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