Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Jo'burg: HECTIC!

For the past forty-five minutes I had my foot to the floor of our POS TechnoServe rental car, racing towards the South Africa-Swaziland border. It was around 7:30pm and Genevieve, a fellow consultant, and I were still about 60 km. away. We weren’t sure what time the border closed (I knew that it opened at 7am – a reasonable hour), but for a country where everything closes at 5pm, my best guess was we had until 8pm, and it would be close. Missing the border would mean driving another hour back to the nearest SA town with a hotel, and another early morning the next day as I had to be in Big Bend, in southeastern Swaziland, by 10am.

Crossing the border into South Africa the day before I had seen the lady in line in front of me give a 100 Emalangeni bribe (about USD$12.50) to the border official. She presented her passport with an E100 note tucked into the back page, which the official pocketed in exchange for the coveted government stamp. I asked Gen if she had any E100 notes on her, and we both agreed that if it came down to it, it’d be worth $25 split between the SA and Swazi border guards to make it back to Mbabane that night.

Rushing towards the border was fun, and a similar – but different – feeling than the drive the day before on the way to Johannesburg for a series of meeting for The Business Place. There was a similar anticipation I felt on both trips; driving into Jo’burg I felt a similar sensation to the one I had on the British Airways flight. There was the feeling of going somewhere new and foreign with a goal in mind and an excitement about what needed to be accomplished, except that by now I had a much clear picture of what was expected of me and had started to put the pieces together.

Gen and I were on the way to Jo’burg to meet with a couple of people from The Business Place Network (TBPN), the umbrella group of TBP, which the Swaziland branch would be a licensee of, and to tour two of the branches. There were a couple of contractual and logistical issues that I needed to discuss with the Network, and it would be helpful to see what an up-and-running TBP office looked like and get a sense of how it operates.

South Africa immediately felt different from Swaziland. The roads were wide and smooth, the towns were more built up with more plentiful and diverse commerce, and the countryside was dotted with nuclear power plants (we saw three within a few hours). Every few dozen miles we would see controlled fires in the hills around the roads, which farmers set in the middle of the dry winter season. When we stopped to take a break, we found the Mug & Bean – a kinda South African Starbucks. Being in Swaziland for 2½ weeks I’d forgotten about lattes.

Our meetings did not disappoint. It was great to make contact with TBPN and work out a couple of contractual issues. In establishing the Swazi TBP branch, we’re taking the model in place in eight centers in South Africa and Botswana, and adapting it for the local context in Swaziland. The biggest change is taking a model that works in urban environments, and making it suitable for a rural location. As such, a lot of our concerns in the contract were about having the ability to change around the physical design, the manuals and materials, and databases and systems to make them a better fit for farmers.

In South Africa, a client could walk into The Business Place for help with virtually any idea for a small or medium sized business. Being in a major city, the options are endless. In Swaziland, TBP will be in the countryside about 90 minutes outside of Mbabane, and we expect that our clients will be mainly farmers, and owners of small businesses closely tied to farmer (e.g. crop transporters, fertilizer suppliers, irrigation designers, etc.). Because the South African centers can’t be experts on all of the different businesses their clients spawn, they seem to focus on providing general management training and connecting clients to other service providers as needed. TBP Swaziland will have a pretty narrow industry focus compared to the South African sites, and we plan on focusing both on management/business and technical – or farming – advisory.

It was also fun to see TBP centers in Johannesburg and Alexandra, about 15 minutes outside of the city. It helped to envision what the space in Big Bend will eventually look like, and seeing Alexandra was fascinating.

I had read a bit about South Africa’s history in my guide book and had heard plenty from my housemate Rob, who spent three months working in Jo’burg, that it was a rough town. In fact, the bed and breakfast where Gen and I stayed Tuesday night – like all other homes in the neighborhood – was bordered by high walls with barbed wire. Even the front door to the inn had a motorized steel gate controlled by a PIN code. All of this is a product of the high crime and general violence from a long history of apartheid, and it’s something that I clearly only got to understand the very tip of during my short trip.

Gen and my visit to the second TBP site in Alexandra was particularly eye-opening, as the building was right in the middle of Alexandra, a very poor township where blacks had been in for years. Driving down the roads to the center you could barely see houses on the sides of the roads, as shanties had been built on virtually all available yard space and land, and essentially there were dwellings on top of dwellings – most of which looked decrepit. At lunch later, our host from TBP, Julie, gave us a bit of a lesson and insight into Alex, and described it as a dense, fascinating, and complicated place. (We were hoping to have lunch within the township, but the restaurant Julie had in mind – one of the few whose quality she trusted within the township, happened to be closed that day. I also regret not having my camera with me when we walked around outside of TBP.)

I plan on making it back to Alex – either to TBP there or not – to check it out a bit more. I saw a sign for the Alexandra Township Habitat for Humanity affiliate, but it looked quite a bit old. It would be fun to take a group of TNS consultants to volunteer for a day there and make a weekend of it in Jo’burg. I did a quick web search and it appears that the affiliate no longer operates, but if anyone could find out better info for me on that, I’d love to hear it.

Back on the road to the Swaziland border, Gen and I arrived just before 8pm, and we were glad to learn that the crossing is open until 10pm. I was a bit relieved, as it was a hectic couple of days, and it felt comforting and a bit strange to think that we would be able to get back to Swaziland. Back home.

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