Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Three months ago I was in a rather chilly Edinburgh. Approaching my 12th year in the UK, coming back to SA wasn’t exactly high on the agenda.

As I neared my 45th birthday it did dawn on me how much I had aged and that it was probably still a good 20 years before I could look forward to a retirement somewhere in the Cape.

So I’m probably more surprised than anyone else to find myself sitting here writing my first column as the editor of Business Day. The cliché about life being what happens while you’re making other plans may have a ring of truth to it.

It’s taken a couple of weeks to digest being back, followed by some thinking about what I should write about in this column. After all these years I felt like something of an outsider. As much as I’ve kept in touch and sometimes agonised about what’s been happening in the country over the past decade, did I really know enough about it?

For now, I’ll stick to something I know a bit about, though it’s not a subject I feel most comfortable discussing, namely myself. Ever since I was given the honour of leading this great publication, just over 22 years after I first joined it as a rookie graduate from Rhodes University, I’ve been doing more than a bit of reflection on this journey.

In covering all the issues facing business and society this newspaper will continue to be driven by a commitment to promote an economy that serves everyone and that provides equal opportunities to all our children, irrespective of their backgrounds

It started with a phone call from Gavin Stewart, a former editor of the Daily Dispatch, then head of journalism at Rhodes University.

That phone call would in turn lead to my grandfather driving me to Grahamstown.

When I got there, I was surprised to find myself sitting next to an even more famous former editor of the Dispatch, Donald Woods, and his wife, Wendy. At this point in my life I had barely ever stepped out of New Brighton, let alone Port Elizabeth, and here I was sitting next to the Donald Woods, the one from Cry Freedom (he was modest enough to acknowledge that the movie should have been less about him and more about Steve Biko).

Not long after this meeting I was the recipient of a scholarship that has transformed my life and taken me to places I had never thought, as a township kid, I even had a right to dream about glimpsing, never mind pursuing.

These were the four people, all deceased, who I thought about when I was appointed.

My other stroke of fortune came later when the late Greta Steyn, whom one of my former bosses and predecessors, now Business Day columnist Peter Bruce, rightly described as "one of the best economics journalists of her generation", decided she was going to teach me everything she knew.

To the extent that I ended up being the paper’s economics editor, she succeeded.

I speak of my own good fortune not because I enjoy talking about myself; quite the contrary, to be honest. I mention these pivotal personal moments because they speak to me about my vision of the role Business Day should strive to play in our country.

While I arrive back in SA in an era of renewed hope with the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, it’s obvious the old challenges are not going to disappear anytime soon.

The headlines in the international press have been largely positive for a change — a stronger rand, rising consumer confidence and a celebration of the durability of key institutions that were seemingly at risk of being overrun. Any sense of complacency hasn’t lasted. We’re still a country of massive inequality, and violent protests across the country attest to that.

In covering all the issues facing business and society this newspaper will continue to be driven by a commitment to promote an economy that serves everyone and that provides equal opportunities to all our children, irrespective of their backgrounds.

It’s taken some good fortune for me to find myself here, and my greatest ambition is to lead this publication in a way that helps ensure that our coverage of business and politics contributes to this vision.

Thinking of Rhodes and my grandfather brought back a memory that reminds me that despite all the challenges, SA has still changed so much for the better. It involves my grandfather, a former school principal who was obsessive about punctuality, coming for a visit and being uncharacteristically late.

When I tracked him down he explained that he had gone to look for me at Jan Smuts House (recently renamed after Robert Sobukwe) but before he got to me he noticed a white-sounding name on the door of one of the rooms. Assuming he was in the wrong place, he turned back to look for the "black" residences.

We may have a long way to go to create the perfect economy for everyone, but it’s hard to imagine any of the students at Rhodes today having a similar story to tell. It’s an honour to be back and have the opportunity to work with some of the best journalists in this country as they tell the stories that will shape our future.