Cycles of hardship and prosperity


What a difference a day makes – or a hundred days.

After South African President Dr Jacob Zuma fired key Cabinet members in a midnight coup, the local currency depreciated 8 percent. Whether you have a business, job, pension, debt or are financially dependent, South Africans will be affected by the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. The words of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu echo: “Watch out! Mr Zuma, you and your government do not represent me, you represent your own interests.”

Should we be anxious?

The current cycle of ANC rule will end. We are just slowly catching up to the event.

The President is a mediocre chess player. In the 2016 annual President’s chess Tournament, Zuma resigned to 13 year-old Nokwanda Gcaba, despite having the offensive advantage of playing the white pieces. The abstract game of chess has three parts; an opening, middle and end-game. An analysis of the game showed Zuma’s failing. He was skillful in the opening and middle moves, but lost in the end-game.  If a teenager can outwit a sitting president, why can’t you?

Just last December, parts of the Western US were in the midst of severe drought. In the Californian Central Valley, thousands of hectares of fruit trees lay barren or dead.

In South Africa, many of the country’s largest dams fell to critical levels. Water restrictions were implemented, farmers stressed and the country’s economic growth forecasts had been revised downwards.

Fast-forward 100 days and the droughts have abated in most areas. Water restrictions in Gauteng have been lifted and the largest Dam in South Africa is overflowing.  Across the oceans, the level of Lake Mead (the biggest US water reservoir) has risen substantially from its all-time low. Record winter snowfalls on the Rocky Mountains will see further improvement as the snow melts in summer. Californian farmers are replanting millions of saplings.

But was there ever a drought or even a water shortage?

With over 70% of planet earth covered in the wet stuff, it seems the only scarcity is a proper economic value apportioned to water supply and distribution. Since the advent of the energy age, clean water can be purified and pumped vast distances.

Mass urbanisation in Gauteng, the economic powerhouse of Sub-Saharan Africa would have been impossible just 150 years ago. One should question the pessimists who predict future wars will be fought over water resources. Despite increasing population numbers, there is an emergent guardianship of natural resources. Desalination technology is well-established and electrical energy makes up about 90% of operating desalination costs. Renewable energy generation efficiencies and coastal areas offer the bounties of sunshine, wind and tidal flows. There will be purified water – at a market related cost.

Business is a difficult endeavour. The outward veneer of a successful enterprise often hides the stresses, sacrifices and hard work which comprise the endless narrative of running an organisation.

Between the demands of society, regulation and the need to innovate and remain competitive there are few certainties.

One certainty however, is the concept of sequential cycles – the knowingness that as bad as things may seem, they will improve. Seasons of abundance follow famines, and vice-versa.  From the earliest records, we surmise that humans are not always suited to thinking beyond the immediate.  Those who are able to live the cycles of abundance and scarcity have an immeasurable advantage over those who don’t.

One person who knew all about sequential cycles was the late Harry Sundle*, an unknown Johannesburg property magnate. His rags-to-riches story was quite remarkable. Sundle was born into poverty and only managed to complete Grade 8. He experienced the effects of two World Wars, the Great Depression and the 1922 Rand Revolt, when martial law was proclaimed in [today’s] Gauteng Province to quell a potential civil war.

Sundle lived the misery of destitution and disease prior to the post-World War developments of vaccinations, Sulfa drugs and antibiotics. In addition, Sundle experienced the fears when the SA National Party came to power in 1948. Predictably, in cycle with their current race-based socialist dogmas, the ANC merged with the apartheid National Party in 2004.

Harry Sundle probably never encountered 18th century Baron de Rothschild’s words:  “The time to buy is when there is blood on the streets.”

Warren Buffett known as the ultimate contrarian investor was in college when Sundle acquired his first property in in the aftershock of the 1948 National Party election victory.

Sundle acquired property only in times of economic stress and political instability. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and South Africa’s move to a Republic a year later resulted in States of Emergency being declared.

For Sundle, they were opportunities.  In the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Riots when a further wave of emigration occurred, Sundle bought property – mostly at discounted prices. Exchange control regulations did not deter him. He thought of creative bartering arrangements or paid for people’s airline tickets in exchange for using their foreign travel allowances.

The 1986 Rubicon speech and State of Emergency resulted in much ‘blood flowing in the streets.’ By then Sundle was in his 70s. In 40 years, he had bartered, borrowed and innovated his way to becoming one of the largest private property owners in South Africa.

Since 1900, South Africa has endured many different flags and ruling political parties. And at least three national anthems and five constitutional models. In time, there will be a new ruling party, a new anthem, flag and probably a revised Constitution. Droughts will happen. South Africa will emerge from an imperfect democracy to a different imperfect system.  There will be abundance and growth and hardship and suffering.

After witnessing and experiencing human misery, bigotry, anti-Semitism, hunger and deprivation, did Sundle develop immunity to bad government, upheavals or repeated failed ideologies? Or did he just understand cycles?

Sundle’s descendants did not inherit his capacity for transforming adversity into opportunity. They mostly left South Africa as exiles, seeking safe and predictable havens.

Those who persist and choose to live in South Africa should emulate the unrecorded heroes like Harry Sundle. Unlike many of our famous leaders and idols, his dream was not to be liberated from imprisonment, or for others to provide his riches – or to return from exile to a reformed country. His dream was to grow his own prosperity. His vision was to remain and endure.

Harry Sundle died in his early 90s. At the funeral service, the man reading the obituary said Sundle was a gifted chess player.

*Name changed out of respect to descendants’.

  • Ron Weissenberg is a Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age 7. He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and their enterprises.


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