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When the end of a road is not the end

Author: Charleen Duncan

First published in “Challenging False Narratives in a Global Crisis: Reflections on Human Rights, Inequality and Securing Food Systems” - a publication compiled by www.comchest.org.za. Download it here.

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(Published - 28 May 2020)

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”

Sometimes wrongly attributed to the blind activist and writer Helen Keller, this slogan has been much-used by motivational speakers since it first appeared on a poster in the USA in the mid-1990s. Whoever the writer was, we can be pretty sure nobody was thinking of a global viral pandemic and its economic effects on the poor and vulnerable when that poster began appearing in corporate offices and public spaces.

Yet in many ways, the road analogy exactly captures not only where we are as a country but also our great potential for moving forward, even when it looks like we’re at the end of the road.

For the vast majority of South Africans, before the pandemic and even more so now, the lack of decent work and a secure income often results in the end of one or other road, be it the road to education or acquiring a skill, a proper home in a safe environment, the expectation of health and wellbeing, meaningful relationships, security in old age, or even life itself. It is shameful that in Africa’s biggest economy, millions of our people cannot guarantee their next meal, and are increasingly dependent on the goodwill of charitable organisations, individual acts of kindness and access to social grants to fend off malnutrition and starvation.

As hard as it is to see beyond such adversity, we’re not at the end of the road. In fact, many of the responses to the virus show that rather than sticking to going in a direction that looks like it will end in failure, people are more likely to adopt a bend-in-the-road approach to adversity and change direction.

In a little more than a month, we have seen an entire country stop almost all normal movement and social interaction, businesses re-evaluating their modus operandi, universities forced to upgrade online learning technology, and a government finally reassessing how it manages social welfare. Literally overnight, a wasted army was put to use, a crime wave receded, a national airline was shown to be a luxury and a certain company stopped shedding its only product. Individually, we discovered we can live without alcohol, cigarettes and junk food, we can do simple repairs, make masks, cook better, entertain ourselves and use the internet for serious work and learning.

This willingness to change, to try something new, to not allow obstacles to become the end of the road, is the very definition of an entrepreneurial mindset.

The entrepreneurial mindset has two elements – a way of thinking (or attitudinal perspective), and a way of acting (behavioral), both of which we have seen recently in many forms. An attitudinal shift in perspective involves people seeing themselves as agents of change, recognising that anything can be done better, becoming more opportunity-driven, embracing innovation and change, and developing a tolerance for failure. Behavioural change involves an action orientation, a readiness to experiment and adapt, a willingness to take calculated risks, creativity in using the resources of others, and tenacity in overcoming obstacles.

We have just demonstrated informally that this entrepreneurial mindset can be learned. What we will need to do post-COVID-19 is to change how we learn formally. This involves three key strategies. The first is to move toward a competency-based model of learning that includes:

  • Opportunity recognition
  • Opportunity assessment
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Resource leveraging
  • Guerrilla skills
  • Mitigating and managing risk
  • Planning when nothing exists
  • Value-based innovation
  • Building and managing networks
  • The ability to maintain focus yet adapt
  • Implementation of something novel or new.

The second strategy is to systematically orientate learning infrastructure towards entrepreneurship by teaching it from foundation phase to higher education.

The third strategy is to entrench entrepreneurship in our culture by leaders championing it, by businesses rewarding it, and by policymakers and politicians writing it into our governance and legislation at every opportunity.

Given time and resources, we can develop a national entrepreneurial mindset that will ensure that we always find the bend in the road, adapt faster to challenges and create opportunities to reimagine our society and resolve its many inequities.

It took a tiny organism smaller than a 1000th of the width of a human hair to show us that we all need this mindset. Let’s embrace the challenge of COVID-19.

(First published in “Challenging False Narratives in a Global Crisis: Reflections on Human Rights, Inequality and Securing Food Systems” - a publication compiled by www.comchest.org.za. Download it here.)

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