#113: Know Your Story

Good morning my friends

I’ve had a fun week watching South Africans popping up all over the global stage. Cape Town illustrator, Russel Abrahams contributed the editorial illustration to an HBR Ascend article on imposter syndrome. Jan Ernst’s Womb collection opened at Collectible Fair in Brussels; Matthew Hindley’s majestic abstracts are on show in Maastricht and Georgina Gatrix’s sometimes luscious, sometimes edgy birds are on display at the Feria ARCO contemporary art fair in Lisbon.

A little closer to home, Nthabi Kekana was chosen to be one of the Blessing Ngobeni Art Prize’s Top 6. I loved her piece, Mmino wa Moya. Also in the Top 6 was talented photographer, Neo Theku, whose work Perils of the dry spell caught my eye.

Now that our souls have been enriched with beauty, let us turn to add to our knowledge.


I had debated whether Phakamisa Ndzamela’s Native Merchants: The Building of a Black Business Class in South Africa belonged under strategy or under soul.

Strategy requires we understand context. History’s lessons can show us the present’s possibilities. Strategy. The stories we are told and tell shape how we see ourselves. They help us imagine who we could be. Soul. So, which is it, strategy or soul?

Ndzamela says that by uncovering and telling the stories that he has, he “invites the reader to reimagine the nature and scale of businesses that would have been built by black people had South Africa had a different history.”

Ndzamela spent years in the archives extracting fragments of long-buried histories. Often all that he can give us is a few paragraphs recounting the history of a businessperson, sometimes only a sentence or two about a miner, whose name appears in the historical record before running into the might of a thieving empire. Each shard of history gives us a glimmer of who and what was, and a hint of what we could still build.

Ndzamela takes us into the early days of the land that is now South Africa. He traces the mining and trading that linked parts of the country to the East long before the arrival of European colonisers.

He describes in rich detail the early days of colonisation. The wrestle for and robbing of resources. That Dutch coloniser, Van Riebeek, far from encountering an empty land, traded with Khoe leader, Gogosoa who owned flocks of at least 1600 cattle and sheep. His detailed account shows us that history is not linear, with a clearly determined outcome, but rather is complex and, often, contradictory. In doing so, he reminds us that often that which appears fixed is indeed malleable, that it is in our power to shape different outcomes.

He introduces us to ‘Louis from Bengal’ and ‘Anthony and Manuel from Angola’ – people who had arrived in the Cape as slaves. The land that Louis first acquired, in 1675, is now the site of the Garden’s Shopping Centre in the Cape Town City Bowl. His wine farm, Leef-op-Hoop, is today part of the Lanzerac Wine Estate. Maria Everts was the child of an enslaved couple from Guinea. In the early 1700s, her farm was what is today the wealthy suburb of Camps Bay.

In this painstaking recovery of buried history, Ndzamela reminds us of South Africa’s deep connections to the world. In the face of increasingly narrow nationalism, it is an important reminder that our connections to each other run far deeper, and for far longer, than the recent blink of the nation-state.

He takes us to the early days of the Kimberly diamond rush, where black miners held licenses, mined claims, and then were stripped of them. Many of the early, significant diamond finds were those of black miners. He comments that “The glittering stones buried under the soil created individuals with long-lasting legacies. After 150 years, their surnames are deeply engraved in South Africa…Unfortunately, the generations of those ancestors deprived of mining licenses more than a century ago had not much to show for their labour.”

Stepping his way through farming, hospitality, real estate, media, and transport Ndzamela introduces us to a pantheon of businesspeople who carved their way in the world. I am immeasurably enriched for having met Thomas Mapikela, Bertha Mkhize, TD Skota, Jeremiah and Segogoane Makgothi, and dozens of others. He reminds South Africans that alongside the political powers of Mandela, Sobukwe, Biko, the Tambos and Tutus stand other giants, the Jabavus, the Maponyas, and the Tshabalalas.

These were exceptional people. For all their successes, they had to expend enormous energy to buy assets that they could afford but were denied, they carried the burden of restrictions and taxes that specifically targeted them. Each success cost more than it should have. For all their courage, they were a minority that managed to make their way through the thorns. Their resilience and courage are remarkable, yet one can only wonder what world might have created had it all been easier. How much richer, in all senses, we would be. Nevertheless, to know that they were there, to know what they did achieve, does tell us how much more we should achieve.

In the mirror image of this history is a strategy lesson, removing impediments and creating possibilities can often be the most powerful freeing of energy. Success doesn’t require a plan steeped in minutiae, it requires the space and support for people to be the best that they can.

The Native Merchants tells the story of people who generate wealth, who create possibilities, who are courageous and connected to the world. It enriches our ability to envisage and enact possibility. I think I made the right decision for today. Strategy.


The stories we tell about ourselves (and others) are as influential as history’s stories.

Psychologist Stephen Grosz wrote in The Examined Life “When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”

Another psychologist, Thomas Moore, writes “When you discover your own spark, the god within you, many elements that you have felt are wounded will suddenly be healed.”

What parts of your story are hidden from your view? How is your story shaped by others’ views of you? Perhaps you could do for yourself what Ndzamela has done for South Africa – visit the archives of your history, look for those fragments that tell of other stories, tease out the complexity, rediscover the bravery and in so doing create new possibilities for your life.


What follows is a true story about giving told by Jack Kornfield. I discovered it in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. After I read it, I sat in silence; amazed and humbled. I thought that you’d love it too.

“An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could the test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. They then asked if would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a print of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay in silence on his gurney while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

I hope that your week is filled with love and possibility. Please do share this letter with someone who might enjoy it.


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