A nation recovering

Len is 71 years old and lives in Princess Beach, Hout Bay. His young children from his second marriage live in the same apartment complex with his ex-wife. Kathrin is 38 years old, lives in Victorskloof, Hout Bay with her husband and three children.

What is your profession and what work do you do? Professionally, I do Business Recovery, Business Development and Business Coaching. I rescue companies when they get into trouble which is usually through a combination of leadership issues and financial issues such as cash flow problems. I used to do a lot of international work but the demands of international travel conflict with the demands of my new young family – I have two young boys aged 11 and 13  – so I cut back on my international travel and now do more local work. My key focus is on people development; organization development through human capital development.

Where were you trained? I trained initially in the UK which I left in the late sixties to come to South Africa. I started in the retail industry here and stayed in the industry until the mid-eighties. Then I left and set up my own consulting business, basically doing recovery work, but that then evolved into development work. As I get older, I feel a need to give back to the business community by using my skills, particularly to help young people who have been shut out of opportunities in business because of our fractured past in South Africa.

Is there something you would like to learn? Yes, I would like to learn Mandarin. I have a passion for language – I speak several European languages and more recently through my coaching assignments started learning the local language Xhosa to the point where I can now teach it, which I do at my boys’ primary school. I also teach adults in business and socially in order to aid communication but more particularly to show respect. Because English in South Africa has been such a dominant language, we tend to ignore the richness that can be brought to the table by becoming a polyglot and by understanding other cultures and languages. I’d love the opportunity to perhaps be training people in Mandarin. With the advent of BRICS – the economic development group that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, we could have an influx of people from the East and speaking Mandarin could help them feel welcome in this country.

What do you do in your free time? I mainly do marathon running. I had my hips replaced a couple of years ago in order to extend my competitive running career. Unfortunately I suffered a whole bunch of pulmonary emboli and I am progressively recovering from that now, but I’m quite used to spending a lot of time training, doing anything between 200 and 300 km per week.

Do you have a hero, a mentor or somebody you admire? I’m a huge admirer of Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s statement: “Speak to a man in a language he understands and you speak to his head. Talk to a man in his own language and you speak to his heart” is one of the drivers for my love of languages and language as a means of showing respect.

Some years ago I was in the corporate world and I was director of a very large retail group (the Edgars Group). One of my portfolios was to take charge of Human Resources development and during my stint as Group HR Director I met a lady called Sylvia Poss who was Head of the Terminal Care Ward at Johannesburg General Hospital. As you can imagine, it’s a huge hospital and her job was to go in there every day to look after and care for dying people. She had what I would describe as “huge physical, emotional and mental robustness”. She wrote a book: Towards Death with Dignity and in it she describes the passages you go through when you discover that you are terminally ill. There’s a comment in the book that inspired me then and still inspires me to this day “The people who are most scared of dying are the ones who are most scared of living.” That is one of those triggers that make me ask myself every morning: How can you add value today? How can you add value to your friends, your family, your community, your business colleagues?

Are you currently saving money for something? No.

Do you have a dream that cannot be bought by money? Well, in fact, the work I do in business development is all about “strategic envisioning”. It’s about creating in somebody’s mind the idea of what potentially could be. And then I use my practical experience to get them back from there to reality in order to chart a way forward that can work. For me the dream is a situation where in Hout Bay we create a community where all the people interact : in language, in commerce, in social activities, etc.

What do you think you will be doing in 10 years? I suppose pushing up the daisies! Or I’ll be a grumpy version of what I am now.

What is your favourite food? Well, I’m a vegan. I love all vegan dishes especially ones prepared from tofu. People think it must be terribly bland to eat tofu, but I went to a restaurant in Japan where I was served a seven-course meal, and every course was made with tofu. Starting with a tofu soup and ending with a tofu ice cream – and everything in between.

Do you have a favourite book? I read quite a lot of poetry. I enjoy the Asian poets like Rumi very much but I don’t have a favourite book, I have a favourite brand of literature which is “Thrillers”

Do you have a favourite movie? I do. My favourite movie of all times is “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”.

What music is your favourite? I enjoy traditional jazz of the sixties. Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine, or Johnny Duncan and The Bluegrass Boys, for example, where you have the proper stuff: a trumpet, a trombone, a clarinet, maybe a washboard instead of drums and a double bass. Generally speaking I like the Neil-Diamond-type of music, you know, softer; I’m not into punk or heavy metal.

And what TV-show? South Park. I allow my kids to watch that at a young age because I’d rather have them exposed to that type of show and then talk to them about the issues it raises as opposed to letting them find out from their friends or from the toilet wall at the school.

What do you like about South Africa? I like the weather, I like the people, and I like the potential. It’s got  massive potential!

What don’t you like about South Africa? I don’t like the political scene. I don’t like the corruption and I don’t like the abuse of power that goes on. The political system is based on patronage, and I think we need to move away from the present Proportional Representation and move towards “constituency-based politics” where people can be held directly accountable in the community in which they live. The political system to me, it stinks. It was a compromise, but the reality is that the president of this country is elected by just over 50% of a party which doesn’t have a complete majority in the country. The voter turnout at the General Election was about 70% of the electorate. The ANC gained 63% of the vote, but the factions within the ANC that decide who will be President are maybe 52% of the 63% which means that less than 25% of the country’s voters decide who is going to be our president. That is not the way to run a modern state or a modern economy.

What are your hopes for South Africa? I suppose the fact that I’m still here and I intend to remain here and that my children and my grandchildren are being brought up here, means that my hopes are high. There’s are a lot of decent people here, even in the political fraternity who see the enormous potential – and eventually when we get past defining things by race and start defining things by political persuasion and we see people truly taking the best interest of this country at heart, this country will become not only a leader in Africa but in the world. I think it has the potential to become a proper rainbow nation, which is where we started from under Nelson Mandela.

Is there anything you would like to say to our Swiss friends and families?  I’d like to say to you: Come and visit us, let us show you the beauty of this country and the beauty of its people. And let us maybe inspire you to help us to do what we need to do. Because sometimes, when you are all alone things becomes very difficult whereas when you have support – even if it is support from 10’000 miles away – support in a physical, financial and emotional sense, then this does help sustain motivation and create the energy to make things happen.

Thank you, Len! Ndiyabulela!

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