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Wednesday conversation: Vuyani Jarana

Education and agriculture are two transformational areas SAA’s incoming CEO Vuyani Jarana would like to be involved in.

WARREN THOMPSON:  last week Nastassia had the opportunity to interview SAA’s new incoming CEO, Vuyani Jarana, to discuss his personal and professional journey – about the man and the job that he’s about to undertake.

VUYANI JARANA:  We grew up in a family of five and then obviously in the rural Transkei went to school with a strong focus on studying and football. Then when I got to be a teenager we started looking at developmental issues. There were no local schools, there were no roads, there was no electricity. So we started looking at how to work together as young people to bring much more development in the community. So a big profile in development activism.

And then I started being curious around telecommunications, trying to fix transistor radios. And when you start getting a bit of sound, you are curious and interested. So that how. We wanted to know what’s inside this box, what makes this thing work, how are people talking inside a box. That was the curiosity. At times we would open it up even if it was not broken, just to know what’s going on inside.

So I learnt telecoms and I’ve been with telecommunications since them.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  A lot of CEOs or guests who have come onto the Wednesday Conversation talk about somebody in particular who had an impact on them when they were younger, whether a teacher or a grandmother or an immediate family member. Was it the same with you? Did you have somebody who believed in you so much and who thought really great things about you?

VUYANI JARANA:  When you grew up in my village, there were few really top people – the best you could get was a teacher. So we were always looking forward to that. But the biggest person who inspired me a lot was my mother, because my mother was kind of a housewife but an entrepreneur. My father worked in the mines and she would make sure we were at school. So she would sell things, doing all sorts of things to make sure we’d money for school fees, we’d got money for uniforms. So just her owns struggles, her own resilience, gave me a lot of hope in life – that if you are strong, if you are resilient, if you push, despite the circumstances, then there is a chance for you to succeed. So she has always been my real reference.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  You’ve been at Vodacom for about 22 years. What has your career journey been like?

VUYANI JARANA:  It’s been a remarkable story for me, honestly, entering the business when I was young, focusing on the network management as a technician. But Vodacom has been great to me because every three to fours years I went into new challenges.

I was lucky enough to be part of the Vodafone Global Leadership programme, really a top, top, top development academy that Vodafone has. There were only 20 of us globally who were working on this and my own cohorts. So it’s been a good story, both opportunity and challenge, in the sense that every three years you get given new assignments, you have to tackle them, you have to make sure you succeed, and then you get the next one. When you think I’ve kind of weathered the storm, I’m kind of getting comfortable, you get drawn into a new thing.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  On that, what about yourself have you learnt or that has surprised you when you look at your leadership journey over the years?

VUYANI JARANA:  I think the big part for me, the big lesson, is the power of community development, community work, working with communities. When you work with communities you are leading people who owe you nothing. They have no reason to follow you except belief in your story, also belief in your commitment to the cause that you are selling to them. So I’ve found that comes through very well when you get into a corporate environment where you are leading people who are kind of semi-obliged to work with you because they can’t choose their own boss. But I think the power of influence, the power of mobilisation, is the power of engaging using the same natural skill that you would use with people who don’t own you anything. So you find there is a bigger buy-in, people commit to bigger things for you without any expectations.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  A lot of my listeners would know you because you are the man who is poised to take over a new organisation. You are going to head that up, which is South African Airways, SAA. The reason I want to talk about it – not necessarily SAA so much – is in terms of how you make your decisions in knowing what the next chapter of your life will be, what the next challenge is going to be. When you are sitting with your family and there’s an opportunity right there, how do you decide whether okay, this is for me, this is what I’m going to do?

VUYANI JARANA:  Firstly, I wish I had a better answer to that. After 22 years at Vodacom a lot of it is what you get given. So you don’t have many choices, you get given the task, “go and do it.” But of course the big thing is always about a stimulating experience, an experience where you feel challenged. I have enormous capacity to plan, to think, to execute. So I always relish challenges that will stretch one’s imagination and make it all interesting.

In Vodacom I’ve always had the fortunate position of being given the tough tasks, the tasks where you have to figure out the path and also exit route for it. So I think SAA came across as one of those that would be challenging as it is, an opportunity that anyone who is quite aggressive about getting things done would want to be part of a team that would work on turning around SAA. So I think that was an interesting perspective for me.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  I think the great thing about having the opportunity to sit down with somebody who is in a position of leadership is that you always meet somebody who is going to take over a company that’s done extremely well, where all the past CEOs have exceeded expectations and made all the great investments. And then you tend to feel pressure when you are going to be the next person who has to take over.

The flip side is sometimes when things don’t go well in the organisation that you are about to embark on, there is also pressure on you. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. How do you deal with pressure, both on a personal professional level? Do you get nervous? How do you go head-on and say “I’m going to tackle this”?

VUYANI JARANA:  I think most people get nervous. I would be lying to say you don’t get nervous on any new assignment, especially a challenging one. I’ve been in spaces at Vodacom where it’s lot more challenging, and you get a bit of nerves coming through. And I have a sense that in any big project where I don’t have nerves I get worried. But nerves make me think, help me to focus, help me to plan better. So getting past nervousness is around the plan, is around the strategy. So when I’m a bit nervous I sit down and I plan. Once I feel I’ve cracked the code in terms of the path to success, my spirit get emboldened and then I start working on executing the plan – and the nerves go out of the window. So I think the nerves are a bit of a trigger for a much deeper introspection and thinking around what you need to do and how you can gain success.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Just going back to your childhood, did you always know that you would do communications, or were there other interests that fascinated you?

VUYANI JARANA:  To be honest with you, in early childhood I never knew I was going to do communications per se. I was interested in medicine, but also I was interested in chemical engineering when I was at school. At the same time I had a huge curiosity about discovering things. At teenage level – I think I was doing Standard 8 – I was interested in transistor radios. It was like this box, this person is talking – how does it happen? So therefore at times we would get into trouble because we would open it, even it was working, just to check what’s inside. When we found those that were not working, we would do a bypass and ultimately when you’d get a bit of sound that would be interesting.

So I was always curious around this. Things didn’t go that well, so I couldn’t get to university because my father died when I was doing matric and I had to find ways of both working and studying. So the only default position was more an apprenticeship.

So then I got a Transkei post in telecoms. I started telecommunications. They were kind to me, because they sent me to school and paid me and in the other six months I would work. That’s how I landed in telecoms, and since then I’ve never looked back. I really thought it talks to the curiosity I has when I grew up.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  I think two weeks ago we had the CEO of NTP Radio Isotopes, Tina Eboka, and she mentioned that she grew up in a rural village in KZN. Sometimes when she used to drive past there, many, many years later, the principal of that school could not believe that she once had been a pupil of that school, because the area had not changed since she was a teenager. She has grown to be successful in her field, in nuclear physics, etc.

Is it the same with you sometimes when go to Transkei to see the area? Has a lot changed since then or is it more or less still the same?

VUYANI JARANA:  A lot has changed, I must be honest. There has been a lot of development in the area. I think part of the work that has been closely connected to the community has always given a very clear path to development. Yes, probably it could have been much better, but I think the role of ICT is a very strong catalyst for development in any areas and how you bring young people into the domain, how you roll out infrastructure that allows digital literacy. Being part of a telco in that industry you’ve got levers to change society, whether it’s about clinics, being digitised or schools or even agriculture.

So, if I look at the environment then and now, there is a great sense of progress. I think the part that you always want to see more is the challenge of jobs, young people looking for opportunities and so on. When I go home, the home becomes like a social services centre because everyone is coming for advice in terms of careers, and parents bring children who will want jobs. So that’s the part that you see staring at you, to say what more can be done to prop the economy, to make sure that it can absorb more young people. But generally I think there has been a huge uplift.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  If there was a project in any sector that you would run and champion which would be aimed at improving the lives of young people, making sure that they have a brighter future, what would it be?

VUYANI JARANA:  I think there are probably two big projects for me that are critical. One is in education, especially around digital. Last week we did a launch of a virtual teacher in the Eastern Cape as a pilot case. I think if we are able to equalise education between urban and rural, rich and poor, we would be creating a much more equal society. I think today, largely because the schools are differently endowed in terms of resources, we are sowing seeds of further disparities. The next generation will still have to deal with empowerment and equity in a different form, a class-based equity.

So for me the big thing is around improving the quality of education, giving opportunities for younger people to at least have a chance in life. That’s one of the big, big transformational projects that I think both civil society and government and business must work on together to make sure we achieve this. That’s more long-term setting the scheme.

But at the near-term level in terms of jobs and skills, if you look at the fact that the economy is going digital, I think jobs are being replaced by technology. I still think the agricultural sector is a sector that has not been worked out properly in the country. So it’s about really focusing on rural agriculture, infusing technology, injecting technology, so that young people can be entrusted. They see it as a very intensive low-earning job.

But I think if you look at different countries with a smaller land mass, they use a lot of technology to improve agricultural yield and they use technology which can attract young people. So, near term, it’s about pushing technology in agriculture, encouraging young people to be involved, to create jobs and make then interested. It’s a near-term project that the country must do.

So those are the two big transformational projects I would like to continue to be involved in, given a chance.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  When you are sitting at home or at the office and you are catching up with the latest news of what’s happening globally and locally, here’s a two-part question. One, what worries you the most, and two, what excites you about the future?

VUYANI JARANA:  If I look at the world globally, a concern for me is the extent to which world peace seems a lot more elusive today than we thought, given the level of integration that communities out there, nations, have today. It seems like the peace issue is still very elusive.

Of course, trends from an African point of view. You see a lot of young people, the migration crossing the Red Sea of younger people. If you look at the demographics, then it starts to bring up the question of whether African governments are  doing enough to create a better continent, to absorb young people to make sure that we have less migration.

But the exciting thing, the exciting part again, is going to stay with my industry. I’m excited at the prospect of digital technology, because I think for mobile in particular, that can help the continent leapfrog its own development, its health skills. In this continent that is not going to be achieved without using technology for education and food security. So the prospect of applying technology in some of the biggest challenges facing society is what excites me, because I know we have done it before. What it lacks is scale, it lacks government understanding digitisation and its benefits. So that’s what excites me. Africa could look very different if all of us act consistently and embrace the technology.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  The World Economic Forum has a very interesting report, and it looks at technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I’m going to paraphrase here – it talks to the fact that the jobs that our kids are going to be doing in the next 10, 20 years have not been invented yet, because that’s how fast technology and digital and artificial intelligence, all of these things, are moving. Does it worry you that in South Africa, when you look at the youth and the unemployment and the shortage of skills, we may not be ready to take advantage of those when the developed economies are already gabbing it?

VUYANI JARANA:  It’s a worrying factor. That’s why the issue of education becomes very, very critical, because we have to look as leaders. We are trustees for the future generation. That trusteeship involves acting consistently to preserve the planet or the continent to create opportunities for the young people who are coming.

I think my big concern therefore for the country and the continent is that that we may not be ready enough for young people to deal with a future that’s going to be digital, when current jobs will obsolete. We need to engage on this. I also think that even at the near-term level digital jobs, digital workloads still go Manila in the Philippines and India. I think Africa has its own share of those opportunities, just at the near-term level, despite investment in undersea cables and all that, that infrastructure. Something has to be done around digital skills, but also stepping up the quality of the education so that our own people can invent stuff that’s produced in Africa.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  One of the things they say will be the solution to South Africa’s economy and growth is promoting entrepreneurship. The one thing about entrepreneurs is that they are risk-takers, they have to have a really great relationship with this word we call “failure” when things don’t work out. How do you deal with the work failure, what’s your relationship with it?

VUYANI JARANA:  Look, you can take it in two ways. You can sit there and say I’ve failed, and be morose and sit in the corner, or you could choose to say I’ve learnt something. My approach is simple, just to say often there is no one path. So if on one path you don’t succeed, you pick up your energy again and go to the next. But you need to learn the reasons for not succeeding so that you don’t repeat the same thing. I think what is worrying is when people repeat the same thing and fail consistently. It’s all about finding alternative paths, understanding that there are risks and opportunities, and if you clarify the risk of the choice you are picking, then you are able to look at the alternative and learn a little bit. So I always look at both sides.

I must say, though, one of the interesting things in my various travels across the continent is the level of innovation in some of the African countries. Look at the smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, in Kenya, in the state of Cameroon [?] and Nigeria – you have people hustling for business. They are pushing the envelope, they are looking for opportunities. I think what we need is to get South Africa into that mode, where you don’t need to be 100% ready to be on the street and to sell something, so on the continent people are selling something. And when we enable them with technology and other means and [bring] them to market, you find people who are already looking for markets. So I think from that point of view, great exposure to the African continent. I think in South Africa we need to step up a bit in entrepreneurship.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  There’s this thing that people say – everything in your life happens for a reason. Things are right on time; even when it’s taking forever it’s right on time. Do you ever think that your life would have been different if you had been a chemical engineer, or a doctor?

VUYANI JARANA:  Look, to be honest with you, I’m believe that the right door for you will open, and you must take it. Whether that door is the best door that you find in house and what you wanted, or kind of not quite, it’s for you. Do something about it.

I do reflect and wonder what could have happened had I gone that route. I think the excitement of ICT, the ability to create something – you look at the status quo, you look at what’s happening, you put together a few smart solutions and you are able to deal with the solutions – is much more exiting. I think maybe I would have been bored. Maybe I would have done wonderful things, but there is nothing as fulfilling as being in an industry where almost in every social issue you have an application where you need to understand the underlying issue and understand how to architect the technology to respond. Literally ICT touches every part of society. If applied correctly with a vision of social innovation, I tell you, the country and the continent will certainly look different. We just need more people who think that way to apply this beyond just the internet, Facebook and other things.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Earlier on you were talking about the continent and the world. If you had to look back, long after you’ve retired and done everything that you’ve ever wanted to do, what kind of South Africa or world do you want your kids and grandkids to grow up in?

VUYANI JARANA:  I think a much more equal South Africa, much more equal world, full of peace. I think a much more equal world will be based on a balanced, equitable education that’s accessible to young people, regardless of the environment. I think a world like that, a world of equal opportunities, where you are able to be an engineer or a doctor, or a scientist, and you are not constrained by your familial environment, I think that’s the world I would like to see the next generation being born into.

And I think South Africa has to invest a lot more in education, has to understand the levers of success for economic development and growth and human transformation, so that we are actually able to set a path towards that. That’s kind of the world I would like too see – much more equal, when young people have equal opportunity to do things, and they are not constrained about where they were born in terms of defining the quality of the education.

Education is a key thing. If it’s not great education, if the education is not equalised, we will be sowing the seeds of inequality for generations to come.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  On that, what would you like your legacy to be?

VUYANI JARANA:  Honestly, if you look at the projects that I’ve been involved with at Vodacom – and I must thank Vodacom for the opportunity – I have been very, very close to initiatives that have a big impact on society, societal transaction, key sectors of the economy, and great things that we have done – not from a CSI point of view, but within a very good commercial construct where you unlock value for the society, but also value for shareholders.

I would like to be remembered as one of the people who would have contributed in transforming society in different ways. That’s why, if you ask me, ICT and airline. If there are going to be any regrets about leaving the ICT industry, it’s going to purely because I think we are just starting to re-shift the industry to transform society. So I will always look back and say, I know these guys can do more. If anything, I will continue to push the industry from an outside point of view.

Perhaps they will say I’m a commentator now, but I think we know the part. So I would like to be remembered as part of a people who would have thought deeply about how to create a much more equal society, how to enlarge resources that are available to be shared a lot more to enable others to succeed in life.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Here’s a question that’s going to make you think – and it’s my last question. If this chapter of your life had to have a title, what would it be and why?

VUYANI JARANA:  The Vodacom one?

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Vodacom, SAA, whatever you want it to be.

VUYANI JARANA:  It’s a hard question. I think the for chapter I’m in, when I think about it, I don’t have a very clear answer, but more “catalyst”. The word catalyst comes to mind because I would like to view myself as a catalyst for change, catalyst for development. A catalyst makes things happen. I have a catalytic relationship with teams, with processes, to actually build a bigger thing. The word that comes to my mind, catalyst – I don’t know how you’d define it. That’s what comes to mind.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Thank you so much for your time.

VUYANI JARANA:  Thanks for having me.

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