Balance is Key to South Africa’s Sustainable Future

September 27, 2011

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I am writing from sunny and welcoming Johannesburg, where I have spent the past week talking to many people – FH staff, business leaders and many others – about the opportunities and challenges they see in creating a sustainable future in South Africa.

The South African business community – and it would seem also the government here – feels very powerfully the responsibility that comes with their role in hosting the COP17 talks in Durban in December. Global attention is certainly not a new phenomenon for the country – anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to soccer will remember the sound of thousands of vuvuzelas ringing in their ears from the country's brilliant hosting of the World Cup a little while back – but of course COP17 is a very different type of gathering.

The government is clearly looking to make a big statement at the talks, as governments are wont to do, and the business community has greeted this challenge with a variety of different approaches, ranging from apprehension to proactive support. In that sense, the country is not much different from many others who have hosted global climate discussions.

But the country itself has a distinctive set of challenges ahead of it. It has a unique view of the world that is in equal parts African and European and a resource-based economy. And while the country continues to look forward to its future, the memory of its turbulent past (and the development challenges that remain as a result) are still evident in its politics. So, while environmental preservation in this beautiful country is broadly seen as important (not least due to a thriving tourism industry based on what I can only describe as Big Nature – as big as it gets really), the people I talked to readily acknowledged that success will be entirely dependent on the ability of all actors to balance a complex set of environmental and social priorities.

There also seems to be a general view that anything done to preserve the environment will of necessity cost business money – and therefore jobs. I don't believe this to be true, necessarily; energy efficiency, for instance, often reduces operational costs, while generating energy from industrial waste streams can dramatically change the economics of production.

But the human challenges are great: quality of education is variable, and I am told that few young South Africans are interested in going into the engineering and science fields, meaning that in some cases innovative practices and talent needs to be imported. The ability of the country's business leaders, foundations and government to address this issue will – I believe – be absolutely key to South Africa's sustainable future. It isn't the only challenge, but it's certainly a big one.

Fortunately, I came across at least a few significant companies and organizations here that are dedicated to meeting this challenge in different ways, and I'm pleased to say that our impressive team at FH in Jo'burg is right in the thick of it. While it's not time yet to talk about these different efforts, we look forward to discussing a few examples (and hopefully even some success stories) soon on this blog.

Have you come across other countries – or companies – that have faced similar challenges? How did they address it? We would love to hear of your experiences of attempts to balance a complex social and environmental dynamic in Africa.