I attended a cocktail function hosted by an Irish-backed company the other day. Our host told his story of coming to South Africa about 6 years ago, loving it, and opening a South African branch of his business 3 years ago.
He tells the joke that in the early 80s when he had just qualified as CA, so many people were leaving Ireland that people used to say "last person leaving Ireland, please switch off the lights." 90% of the people he qualified with all emigrated out of Ireland in those years.
What attracted him to this country are the similarities between Ireland in those days and present-day South Africa. He's confident that the economic boom that has lead to Ireland getting to Europe's highest per capita income is sure to repeat itself here. He's hopping onto that train and so I thought I'd do some research and hop on too.
It turns out that in the 70s to early 1980s, the Irish economy was hit by oil price shocks, competition from other European countries, rising inflation, taxes, unemployment and a significant brain drain. Things changed dramatically in the 1990s as the economy moved from primary activities (agriculture, mining, etc) to more value-add high-skilled activities (financial services, IT, etc).
It's interesting to me that during those tough times in the 80s, the country was experiencing an increase in the number of university graduates. All education is free in Ireland, including university. I think the impact of this has been huge, adding to the country being ranked the best place to live by the Economist in 2005. The Economist
said: "Ireland wins because it successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new, such as low unemployment and political liberties, with the preservation of certain cosy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life."
So in these stretching times in South Africa, if we can continue doing the right things (which aren't always popular); if we can keep deepening democracy, creating an environment for economic growth, strengthening civil and community structures (family being key), tackling our giants of crime, AIDS and unemployment, I believe in the decades to come, we can reap great fruit like the Irish have.
Let's keep those lights on.