Mark Barnes, Kisby chairman and former CEO of the South African Post Office, recently got his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. He took to Twitter afterward, tweeting, “Vaccinated! I got the SMS – get to Hillbrow CHC! System worked. Frontline medical staff wonderful – caring, positive and competent. Yes, SA, we can”. Barnes joined Alec Hogg and Steven Nathan on the BizNews Power Hour to share his positive experience and what it says to him about the future of South Africa. – Claire Badenhorst
It was such a wonderful experience and one which I hadn’t anticipated would be that way. I put in my first application for registration on the 2nd of February, so it’s a long time ago. At that stage, it was sort of only for medical, you know, people and frontline personnel. But nonetheless, it seemed to have got onto some system. And then I registered later and so on. We’ve all registered, and I’m sure more than once with our medical aids and with the government. Then, sort of 10:30 on Sunday night, I get this SMS which says, ‘hey, can you pitch up at Hillbrow CHC?’, well, I had to look at what CHC stands for – turns out it’s the community health centre – ‘and bring your vaccine code and your ID and whatever, and your medical aid and come along’.
It was amazing because it was on the first day. So, you know, I was filled with trepidation if the truth be known. I packed myself a lunch and I put on some sunblock and I put on a hat and I took my watch off. It is Hillbrow, boet. And I was about to get in my car when someone said, ‘are you crazy? Uber there and make sure they drop you at the entrance’. So we found our way through Hillbrow, which I have to say is not in a good way. And you know what the lesson for me in all of this is? We should all be treated equally so that we are made brutally aware, if necessary, of the circumstances of our peers. So it was for me, in a funny way, you know, useful to have to go to Hillbrow instead of going to Sandton.
Anyway, I got there and we were funnelled off into a separate area away from all of the people queuing for various other things. And it worked like magic. The only thing is that when we got there the vaccines hadn’t yet arrived. So that was a huge panic. So we all thought, oh, here we go again. But 40 minutes later, they arrived. The queue was very orderly handled. We had chairs. We were sitting outside in the shade and we were called in groups of six, which are divided into groups of three, which went into three separate cubicles. And the process was professional, friendly. The people who were administering these vaccines were very well trained and caring. It was an absolute pleasant surprise to me. And you know what? If we go looking for some more of those, I think we’ll find them.
On what it says to him about SA:
You know, we sit here and we spend our lives looking for faults and finding criticisms and goodness me, you don’t have to look very far to find those. But every now and again, you know, you get a surprise when you go and test the reality of it all. Somewhere underneath all of this difficult stuff, some things are turning slowly forward. And that inspired me. I mean, this afternoon at two minutes past three, I got another SMS from them to say hi. I’ll read it to you. ‘Dear Mark Angus Barnes, you received your vaccine on the 17th of the 5th, 2021, at Hillbrow Community Health Centre. Your proof of vaccination code is blah, blah, blah. Please keep this code in a safe place should you be required to verify your vaccination status.’ It’s working.
On the Pfizer vaccine and what happens next:
I’ll get another SMS – and this time I’m confident it’ll happen – to go back in 21 days’ time from the 17th and get the second one. And then they record the actual vial, if you like, the batch number of the dose so that it’s all matched, and I’ve got a card to prove that. And only days before, I was wanting to tweet, goodness, you know, we’re the worst vaccine guys in the world, which is not far from the truth. Okay. And maybe for all of us, there is a dawn coming. You know, we have to sit it out and we have to wait. But it was a pleasant surprise and everyone in the queue was older than we’d like to be. This is the first time I’ve got into a queue because of my old age, which is another thing you have to get to peace with. The sisters and the nurses were looking after us and it was a jovial, celebratory spirit which was totally unexpected in the centre of Hell’s Kitchen, which we call Hillbrow.
On growing up in Hillbrow:
I lived there. In 1 Velma Court. It’s the main road which goes about two streets from the main drag. Of course, if I had the choice I wouldn’t live there now, but the correct thing is, can we make it liveable now? You know, because for the most part, my sense is, and all the people that warned me of the fate less than death that was awaiting me should I venture into such a place, is that it’s predominantly occupied by a lot of foreigners. The streets are in absolute shambles. And the rule of law seems to be on the street. Not, you know, not in any sound system, until you go past the gate into the system, which I went into, and then it was completely different. But out in the streets, it’s not a pretty place and it’s not acceptable that it’s not a pretty place. And we can’t let it rot in its own mess, you know, and I think more of us should stop going to Sandton and start going to find out where the real people live, if I can call us that. And I include myself in them. And then we might start realising how wide the gap is and how much we have to do to close it.
We’ll always have these differences. But they don’t have to be such chasms. They don’t have to be such divides.
On South Africans’ resilience:
I don’t think we reflect often enough on how tough we are and how much we’ve lived through together and apart, and how we can cope with problems and how we make a plan, you know, and how on the ground level, in my view, the issues around racism and gender differences and all of these things that divide us in the public domain are not that strong. We don’t wish them upon each other when we engage face to face, you know, as human beings. I promise you, I get gooseflesh talking to you about it. But you’re sitting there in a queue – the queue is as diverse as our country is. The staff are engaging; they impartial as between who you are, how old you are, what sexual race you are. And you go, OK, this is what we planned. This is what we voted for. There are microcosms of that which we need to feed. And there are masses of the opposite which we need to destroy.
On whether the Kisby Fund would promote this:
I think we’d be investing in more established companies, but they would find their input and they would find their future employees in such a place and be able to draw them out of such a place if they had the right mix of capital, which enabled them to grow their businesses. And so we [are] wanting to look at more established businesses with the right mix of capital, because the cost of capital in the real economy, as I’ve termed it, is exorbitant. And there are still people making money at rates of interest five, 10, 20 times the sort of commercial rate. Imagine if we had the money at the right price, how they could grow and in so growing, could create unemployment.
The unemployment stares you in the face as you drive through Hillbrow. People standing on their balconies in their droves. Young, old, across the spectrum. People walking around the streets without jobs; lots and lots of beggars. It’s not sustainable and we need to go there and find the solutions there. And we need to take capital out of the established markets and put it where it’s needed to grow, not where it’s happy to rest.
Steven Nathan on Barnes’s views on the nation:
Yes, that’s great to hear about Mark’s good experience and, you know, I was thinking of this Sisonke vaccine program. It’s a partnership; it’s collaboration. So it’s the government working with great stakeholders and I think that’s a big lesson. Government can’t do it on its own, and if they open up to the private sector – I think the private sector and NGOs – there’s an enormous, enormous willingness to move forward and to work together. If we can embrace more of these partnerships, I think we can get similar results. And there’s no question that there’s enormous potential in South Africa. It’s how do we unlock that? That would be one way.
It’s always a challenge with credit because the companies that don’t really need credit and have the highest margins, have the lowest borrowing costs, and the entrepreneurs are the people that are outside of that net who need it the most, have the highest borrowing costs. So that is an enormous challenge. If we can funnel it correctly and if we can get more collaboration going, I think we all know the potential for economic growth, for inclusivity in the economy, for reducing unemployment. And as Mark says, there’s nothing more depressing than seeing willing and able people sitting on the side of the road, not having employment opportunities.
Mark Barnes on Peter Major’s view that the government has never been as better directed or positioned in the last 40 years as it is right now:
Well, I haven’t seen what he’s seen but I would say this. We are at a point in our outlook where we can consider it a base. But I wouldn’t say that we’re up and flying by any stretch of the imagination. But what we could say is that surely now, we’ve recognized, as Steven pointed out, the need to embrace one another, to hold hands and to form partnerships that go beyond. You know, as I said in a tweet sometime ago, we better start loving our future more than we hate our past. And so we might be well placed. We might be seeing lots of things being shed, but I wouldn’t argue we are out of the woods at all from a government perspective, no.
🇿🇦💉Vaccinated! I got the SMS – get to Hillbrow CHC! System worked. Frontline medical staff wonderful – caring, positive and competent. Yes, SA, we can!!!💉🇿🇦 pic.twitter.com/3gLAg7h2lo
— Mark Barnes (@mark_barnes56) May 17, 2021
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