"When you finish your life and you have a comment to make before you die – what are you going to say? You came and consumed in a sea of poverty?"
By Joanna and Wolfgang Hafenmeyer
This third profile in the series based on the book, Future Makers, is about Isaac Shongwe – political scientist and economist, entrepreneur, philanthropist – and former slum dweller in Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s the CEO of Barloworld Logistics Africa.
“We can eradicate poverty and inequality if we work as hard for it as we are willing to work for big money,” says Isaac Shongwe. Isaac knows what he is talking about. He was born in Alexandra, one of the “townships” of Johannesburg, during the time of apartheid in South Africa. Isaac never knew his father. When he was ten, his mother died following a severe illness and he was left alone.
The situation for Isaac was desperate. Often, he did not know where his next meal would come from. Sometimes he even thought about ending his miserable life – nobody would have missed him. Today, however, Shongwe is a successful businessman, and invests much of his energy and money in order to improve the situation of people who are forced to rely on support.
Education: His Path Out of Poverty
Isaac was fortunate to be given possibility to continue his education after he reached the age of 12. It changed his existence. He says:
“I am one of the few lucky people who were given a chance. My chance was education. Today you can drop me anywhere in the world, and I will survive thanks to it.”
After he graduated from school in the early 1980s, he received a stipend to attend a university in Great Britain, then found another scholarship to study in the USA. In 1987, Isaac graduated in politics and business, and returned to his home in South Africa.
Leaving a Dent in the World
It is a fascinating success story – “the orphan from the slums fights his way up to become an entrepreneur.” Even more extraordinary is the other side of Isaac Shongwe. His enterprises were a way of becoming financially independent and enabling him to do what he really wanted to do. Isaac was always clear that he did not want to become a normal capitalist:
When you finish your life and you have a comment to make before you die – what are you going to say? You came and consumed in a sea of poverty? I want to leave a dent in the world, just a little impact. Because of my existence, I want the world to be a better place.
Isaac started to meet with other young entrepreneurs. At the meetings, he always challenged them, asking whether they wanted to become “regular capitalists” – as can be found all around the world – or whether, with consideration for the history of their country, they wanted to become capitalists of a new stripe.
By visiting the townships with them and organizing other activities that brought the country’s inequalities right before their eyes, he made it clear that people in positions of leadership have enormous responsibility for the weaker members of society. Within a short time, Isaac’s group expanded to 100 managers and together they began organizing social projects.
The Africa Leadership Initiative
Isaac committed himself to lead the “Africa Leadership Initiative” to success on the African continent.
It is his aim to create a network of leaders who dedicate themselves to real problems in the world, instead of focusing only on themselves and their own interests. According to him, society must ostracize entrepreneurs who only act in their own interest.
We have to create a culture, a movement that isolates and shames such people.
Only those who strive for a better world and earn their money in “win-win-win-situations,” meaning profit for themselves, for society and for the environment, deserve the respect of their fellow human beings.
Life Is Not About Money
Isaac’s own experience told him that selling one’s soul for money is tempting, especially for well-educated, intelligent, capitalist-minded black Africans. But,
Life is not about money. Money is good, but it will not make you happy. You buy a holiday home in Cape Town, and then you realize you can buy a vineyard and you can buy a yacht … how much is enough? Everyone has to answer this question for themself.
Isaac knows from his own experience that capitalism can “suck you in” very quickly and financial success can get you hooked on having more and more.
Isaac wants to create a like-minded community of what he calls the “socially creative.” If they have the right positions in government, economy and civil society, these people can have a positive effect on the world. He is convinced that we can eliminate poverty on earth if more and more people share this attitude and way of thinking.
Day by day, he works to mobilize human capital and send it to where the supply is still running low – to the business of improving the world. He likes talking about what he calls “economic activism.”
You look at how the apartheid system was defeated. It was defeated because some of us who grew up in a township were activists. We were so convinced that the system was wrong, we were prepared to die for it.
That activism is gone. My strong feeling is that we need to bring back that activism. But now, because we are a democracy, it needs to be in different areas. There is a new enemy out there! Those of us who moved out of the townships don’t see that enemy. However, one of the things that keeps me awake at night is the huge inequality that exists. We have the responsibility and perhaps even the possibility for the first time in history to defeat this enemy.
More information about Shongwe can be found here.
About the Authors:
Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer is the Managing Director of “MyImpact”, an organisation focusing on helping leaders to realize meaningful careers through coaching and seminars, as well as assessment tools and publications. An expert in the development of corporate responsible leadership programmes, Joanna is also a member of the Board of “Öbu” – the Swiss think-tank for business and sustainability – and leads the Responsible Corporate Leadership (RECOL) Forum, a group of innovative global enterprises in this area. Prior to 2012, she was a member of Microsoft Switzerland’s Executive Board as their Innovation & Sustainability Officer. Joanna was selected as a First Movers Fellow of the Aspen Institute.
Wolfgang Hafenmayer is the Managing Partner of LGT Venture Philanthropy, with a mission to improve the quality of life of less advantaged people. To realize this mission, Wolfgang built a team of 25 investment managers and philanthropy advisors on five continents to identify and support organizations with outstanding social and environmental impact currently improving the quality of life of 7.9 million less advantaged people. Wolfgang has been an Investment Manager with BonVenture, the first social venture fund in German-speaking Europe, and helped set up Forma Futura, a sustainable asset management company.