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Sometimes it’s hard to remember everything that has happened over the last 30 years since Nelson Mandela cast his vote on April 27 1994, with millions of other South Africans who had been denied that basic human right until then.

We often look past some of the good things; hosting an incredible Soccer World Cup and Cricket World Cup — and all the infrastructure that was built that we enjoy as a result. For those of us who live in Gauteng, the Gautrain that links Pretoria, Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport is just one lasting testament.

We easily gloss over the honours South Africans have won on the international stage; the arts and culture awards, the scholarship and even our scientists’ great skill in handling Covid-19 and understanding the virology. Sometimes it seems not even a world-beating, and unprecedented, fourth Rugby World Cup victory by our crusading Springboks can lift the gloom. 

We can blame state capture, and the challenges faced by our state-owned enterprises, but the even bigger issue that has stayed with us throughout the last 30 years is prosperity — access to it and the lack of it.

As we commemorate 30 years of democracy this year we have a wonderful opportunity as South Africans who love this country deeply to reflect over the last three decades. We have all changed a lot, more than we might readily admit; the JSE itself has evolved from the exchange that ushered in the democratic dispensation.

We literally changed space, shifting offices out of the old city centre north to Sandton in time for the new millennium, after closing the open outcry trading floor in 1996. By the time the pandemic hit in 2020 we had completed the space-shifting continuum by managing to operate the exchange entirely virtually throughout the lockdown, while other exchanges halted operations.

Innovation and expansion have been the hallmarks of the JSE in the postapartheid era, increasing in scope and scale in recent times, from Strate, the electronic clearing and settlement organisation, to launching our own real-time news service (Sens) — an increasingly prescient move given the disruption of legacy media houses.

Aggressive strategies

We established exchange traded funds (ETFs) 20 years ago, acquired the SA Futures Exchange and created an alternate exchange in AltX. We demutualised — and promptly listed on our own exchange in 2005 — we opened a collocation centre, moved to a T+3 settlement cycle and migrated our equity and currency derivatives to the LSE’s MIT system and launched a private market and carbon trading.

All of these were precursors to our creation of new ways to help investors, foreign and domestic, get access to the stock exchange. We have embarked on aggressive change strategies to ensure we remain relevant internationally, working with tech partners and global giants such as Amazon Web Services to modernise our systems by leveraging AI, machine learning and blockchain technologies to future-proof ourselves for the benefit of everyone who depends upon us.

We continue to fly the flag for our country at SA Tomorrow conferences from New York to Beijing and Shanghai, and act as an honest broker between organised business and government.

More recently, we’ve introduced initiatives to fast-track the development of SMEs, which I believe are key to job creation and the transformation of wealth in our country. Through our Enterprise Acceleration Programme we have given SMEs access to some of the best mentors this country has to allow them to fast track their growth from small to medium and then large businesses in their own right.

Last year we debuted a collaboration with the Western Cape provincial government to drive capital access for SMEs in the province. The Capital Matching event held in November was a result of this collaboration and brought together SMEs from across various sectors, with 33 of the 52 SMEs securing funding totalling R230m.

We have done this because we believe the best possible way to address the time bomb of youth unemployment and the transformation of the ownership of the economy is to create a pathway for small businesses to grow, to employ more people and create even more opportunities downstream as they develop their own supply chain networks.

Unclaimed dividends

We also educate more than 20,000 students annually in our trading simulation programme, the Investment Challenge. We do this to improve financial literacy and to engage the youth in financial markets.

Another huge undertaking that we look forward to launching this year is the unclaimed dividends initiative, which aims to match shareholders with their unclaimed dividends. At the JSE we truly believe that returning R4.5bn worth of unclaimed dividends to the rightful owners of the shares will have a significant economic impact on their lives.

The iconic picture of Nelson Mandela voting in Durban 30 years ago is as powerful a symbol now, as it was then. His words remind us that “it always seems impossible until it’s done”, but equally; “after climbing a great hill, one finds that there are many more to climb”.

We have travelled a long way and as someone who remembers life before 1994 it would be inappropriate of me to ignore that. But equally, as a realist I have to acknowledge that there is so much more to be done. We all have a role to play, as individuals and as businesses, and the JSE is committed to doing what it can to broaden access to capital and achieve financial inclusion for those who were previously excluded and continue to be a beacon for international investment into SA and a gateway for capital to Africa.

Madiba’s long walk to freedom isn’t over; in truth it’s only just begun, but to complete it we must do this journey together, shoulder to shoulder. We dare not give up hope now, for that would be a betrayal of the legacy bequeathed to us 30 years ago.

• Fourie is group CEO of the JSE.

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