Helen Suzman Memorial Lecture 2015

Summary of the seventh Helen Suzman Memorial Lecture, delivered by Ms Gill Marcus at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on the 3rd November, 2015.


This year’s Helen Suzman Memorial Lecture was delivered by Gill Marcus under the auspices of the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF), the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at UCT.  

Francis Antonie, the Director of the HSF, welcomed Ms Marcus and noted the diverse and laudable contributions she has made over the course of her career to South Africa. The daughter of anti-apartheid activists exiled to the United Kingdom, Marcus began working for the struggle in 1970 in the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity.

Returning to South Africa in 1990 following the unbanning of the ANC, Marcus was first elected to parliament in 1994, then appointed Deputy Finance Minister in 1996, and then Deputy Governor of the South Africa Reserve Bank in 1999. Following this, she held the position of Professor of Policy, Leadership and Gender Studies at GIBS from 2004 until 2009, when she was appointed the ninth Governor of the Reserve Bank for a five-year tenure—the first woman to hold that position. 

Marcus began by paying homage to the legacy of South Africa’s great leaders of the recent past. Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and Suzman et al, were and continue to be shining examples of men and women with the courage in action, inclusive vision, and steadfastness of conviction that characterises true leadership and which, she argued, is desperately needed today.   


The entirely unexpected rise in the popularity of political outsiders such as Bernie Sander in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK—previously considered political eccentrics for their radical and non-conformist views, now praised for their authenticity and the alternative position they represent—is, she suggested, a manifestation of a wave of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the global political status quo and the art of hollow rhetoric, inaction and electioneering.

The mutation and perpetuation of the global financial crisis—evidenced in the continued slow growth (excepting national debts, that is) of the Eurozone, the recessions in Brazil and Russia, and the recent and severely alarming economic slowdown in China—presents a significant challenge to leadership in South Africa.  In today’s age of interconnectedness and global markets, with the Eurozone as a major export destination and Brazil, Russia and China as key economic partners, the ramifications of economic crises affect us all.  

Moreover, major political issues, such as the growing migrant and refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, and the on-going rise in global inequality, unemployment and poverty, bespeak of a total and sustained failure in leadership to acknowledge the fundamental problems facing humanity, and to work together to find effective solutions. Harmonised leadership, characterised by a shared, equitable vision and a unity in approach and action, is needed, she argued, to get the global economy back on track and improve the quality of life in today’s global community.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Closer to home, Marcus drew attention to the slowing economic growth in the Sub-Saharan region and gradual dissipation of traditionally crucial growth-driving factors—noted in an IMF report released last week on the 28th October[1] —such as improved policies, debt relief, abundant global liquidity and commodity prices. Many of these are consequences of the global economic situation and provide further motivation for South Africa to adopt an exemplary international leadership role.

Equally worryingly, the region remains beset with poor and dysfunctional infrastructure, massive educational attainment gaps, and continued gender inequality in both access to education and employment. These three factors are contributing significantly to the drag on growth, rise in unemployment and widespread poverty that the region still experiences. They are priority intervention areas and must be addressed as such. 

When questioned later, Marcus identified the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the role that South Africa plays within SADC as crucial to ensuring these issues are properly tackled. Recent developments in SADC’s economic trajectory, including a re-orientation toward industrial development and infrastructure building, together with SADC’s mandated dedication to securing true gender equality and proper access to education for all, make the SADC an obvious framework in which to work toward real, sustainable development in these areas of priority. 


South Africa too is facing grave economic challenges. Our GDP has contracted by 1.5% in the second quarter of 2015, and key sectors underpinning our economy—such as mining, agriculture, electricity and manufacturing—have lost real value and been severely affected. This is, Marcus argued, not only entirely undermining attempts at reducing unemployment but is, in fact, preventing new entrants from even entering the labour market. She remarked disparagingly that load shedding and the lack of 24-hour universal access to electricity is quite simply unacceptable in South Africa.

Further, growth in real gross fixed capital formation has contracted: betraying the declining confidence that Marcus views the private sector holds in the government’s willingness and ability to secure and protect their investment. With two thirds of gross fixed capital formation driven by the private sector, this is alarming. Government must strive to rebuild investor confidence and endeavour to encourage private sector involvement by facilitating attractive, potentially profitable, opportunities with assurances and demonstrations that risks taken will be protected.

In a global context, the rising inflation and depreciation in currency that is affecting emerging economies everywhere is making imports more expensive. Many of our primary areas of export are themselves in differing states of economic difficulty, leading to a lack of demand for our goods despite their depreciated value. Although we have limited control and influence on such external conditions, adopting some measures of import substitution is, she proposed, a strategy that could and should be taken to mitigate domestically these globally caused effects.

However, the true and sustainable solution to these issues, Marcus proposes, lies in our approach to education.  We must strive to take a holistic approach to engendering significant improvement across all levels of education that rests on inclusivity as well as an acknowledgement of the effects that decades of apartheid and colonial rule continue to have.  

Education quite literally leads to liberation. With future economic success relying increasingly on technological prowess and the abilities of a knowledge-based society, Marcus considers education to present, now more than ever, the most crucial area in need of improvement. This is not just to secure the genuine emancipation of previously disempowered communities in our nation, but also to build toward a successful, prosperous and better South Africa with opportunities available to all.

What can we do?

It is in this vein that Marcus best articulated her conception of true leadership.  It is the ability and willingness to make the difficult decisions—the unpopular decisions—that prioritise the needs of our future society. In economic terms, this is the preparedness to recognise that ‘growth requires investment, and means present sacrifice for future gains’.  In terms that we all understand, it is the preparedness to make sacrifices for our children and grandchildren in the knowledge that they will, as a result of our sacrifice, be better off than ourselves.  

South Africa, and South Africans generally, have a tendency to focus on the problems. ‘We can march’, Marcus quipped to knowing laughs from the audience. What we do less well, she argued, is to take a positively orientated stance and focus on solutions. Corruption, for example, is a cancer that continues to afflict our society, and we all recognise it as such. And whilst taking to the streets and marching against corruption is undoubtedly important in demonstrating our solidarity and frustration, do we do enough as a society, she asked, to strive collectively toward a nation founded on shared values that gives corruption the room to neither move nor breathe?

Marcus repeatedly asserted during the course of the evening that leadership is not confined to political leaders or leaders of business. And so in that sense, leadership is not a specific position at the head of some group or organisation, and nor does it necessarily carry with it the traditionally associated concepts of power and authority. Rather, it is a character trait that each of us is capable of, regardless of location in society. It is the will to attempt to personally influence positive, beneficent and sustainable change in whatever context or field that we are able.  

And perhaps it is this that also best defines the legacies of Helen Suzman and her fellow giants of South Africa’s yesteryears. This is that neither the colour of one’s skin, nor one’s gender, nor the size of one’s bank account, should prevent one from having the courage, the foresight and the integrity to stand for what is right and strive to build an inclusive, equitable, fair and just democratic society. We must all display the quality of leadership to achieve this. Only by doing this, Marcus concluded, can we “find ways to make this a shared future, where we can truly claim that South Africa belongs to all our people”.

Andrew Barlow