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CURRENT PROJECTS:The Approachable Professor Swart

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Picture: Mila Newby 

IF anyone imagined that historians are dry, fusty old geezers who rabbit on about such things as the Peloponnesian Wars and how Constantinople became centre of the Ottoman Empire, this stereotype is  shattered after a meeting Sandra Swart.

Professor at Stellenbosch University’s History Department, President of the Southern African Historical Society and author of RIDING HIGH Horses, Humans and History in South Africa (Wits University Press), Sandra Swart is a vivacious individual, absolutely in touch with contemporary society and displays a great sense of fun and humour.

Well what has this to do with FarSide Productions? It’s the horse thing of course. Professor Swart has documented the various complex relationships between horses and humans in South Africa since early times. Our current project, that has the Cape cart horses as its main subject falls into this space. So it was only a matter of time before we found our way to Stellenbosch to find out what the Professor had to say.

We found her, not in her offices in the History Department, but at the University’s Equestrian Club above Coetzenburg’s sports fields, worrying about her sick Appaloosa foal Voodoo and preparing to go for a ride on its mother Aztec.

It was a preliminary chat and breaking-the-ice session. But I can see that she will have some interesting things to say on-camera and should add depth and perspective to the content of the show. I must say that I am surprised at where this show is taking us: from the cramped streets of Bonteheuwel in the uneasy company of a known gangster boss and his hit men, to the leafy peace of Stellenbosch conversing easily with an Oxford-trained historian.

RIDINGHIGH.


CURRENT PROJECTS: SCHOOL PROSPECTUS

 

I have been busy writing copy for a school prospectus in recent weeks. Because the job’s not yet finished, I‘m not going to name the school, suffice to say that it is one of the better schools in the country and has a proud academic and sporting tradition. A successful member of the Proteas squad currently campaigning the cricket world cup is a product of this school, as have been numerous other famous sportsmen, scientists, literary figures and academics (some of them world-renowned).

To research this project I had to find out whether I was comparing apples with apples, and pears with pears. So I downloaded as much information about South Africa’s top-end schools as possible; from Grey College in Bloemfontein to Bishops in Rondebosch with St Andrews in Grahamstown, Michaelhouse, Hilton, Maritzburg College and the odd Deutsche Schule thrown in. My desk is awash with the offerings of a whole pile of private and Model C schools.

The first commonality that I picked up was that they all promised to make ‘young men out of boys’. These boys invariably go through a journey that encourages them to ‘embrace the future’ (although I noticed that a number of schools were on public record as having staff who loved to embrace young boys. But we will steer clear of that subject for now).

TRADITION IN REVERED TONES

Then I noticed that they all spoke about ‘tradition’ in revered tones. This I understand because I have been there myself. Some years ago I assisted my alma mater, St Andrews, in a campaign to draw attention to its need for additional funds to ‘embrace the future’ and uphold the school’s fine ‘tradition’ in the years that lay ahead. On meeting with the old boys organising this campaign, many of them former classmates, I identified what I judged to be an unhealthy obsession with the school’s clock tower. These men were getting all misty-eyed about a stone structure near the tuckshop.

I could not understand this and asked them what relevance did the clock tower have to their lives? Indeed what relevance did it have to the lives of the people of the Eastern Cape or even the whole of South Africa? After all we were meeting to convince people across the length and breadth of the land to fork out cash for the ongoing wellbeing of St Andrews College in Grahamstown.

They looked at me as if I were an imbecile. “It’s the clock tower, Newby. You don’t understand. The clock tower represents the school and all it stands for.’

I had always been under the impression that the clock tower was for communicating the time of day to the boys of St Andrew. At any rate, it could never be relied upon because more often than not, it ran late.

I left that meeting confused because those old boys, some of them good businessmen and captains of industry had succumbed to sentiment and nostalgia. Just like I had failed to realise the importance of the clock tower, they had failed to appreciate the need to attach real world relevance to their beloved school. They were confusing esoteric symbolism with the need to be relevant.

RELEVANCY?

 Most things in this world need to be relevant to something, as a raison d'etre for existence. For instance in my old classmates’ own businesses or farms anything that might not be relevant to the organisation concerned or bottom line would be canned or culled without question. But in the case of their old school the luxury of sentimentality had become a God-given right.

‘It’s not about the clock tower,’ I had told them. ‘It’s all about identifying the relevance of this school within the various environments that it exists and functions. Only then can you ask people to part with money.’

Looking at the piles of school information that litter my desk, I see now that it is not only St Andrews that wallows in sentimental tradition, erroneously mistaken as the rites of passage to true manhood. Nearly all schools indulge in this belief. The schools’ documentation talk about ‘embracing diversity’, ‘ensuring that the individual has safe space within which he can develop’, but the sub-text between the lines is clearly visible.

The old boys who have anything to say about the running of the school want one thing and that is tradition. They want everything to be just as it was when they were there. With tradition comes discipline and conformity. It’s something that’s easy to understand and sits comfortably on the conscience.

But as my wife always likes to say, ‘we should be evolving’. There should be some forward movement in our passage through time. Maybe things don’t get any easier, but at least we can try to understand them better. And if a school is going to attract new customers in the form of pupils (or learners as they are called these days), then it should differentiate itself from other schools. Much of that differentiation lies in how relevant that school is to the community that supports it. These might be a neighbourhood, town, city, provincial or national communities.

POCKETS OF EXCELLENCE

Futurist Clem Sunter speaks of ‘pockets of excellence’ as part of a scenario for a future South Africa that eventually becomes functional and relatively uncorrupt. These pockets of excellence should stand out like reinforced concrete bulwarks in our society, providing enduring strength, reference, standards and knowledge, when most everything else is failing.

A good school could be likened to such a pocket of excellence. Its people would learn wrong from right, supply guidance and strength when such things are needed most. The description ‘philosopher king’ is a fanciful term (Plato coined it in his work ‘The Republic’), but the output of young men inclined in that direction might go a long way in holding a community together.

A school could be differentiated from others if many of its scholars learned that business and making money is important. But even more important is how wealth is distributed. Winning in sport is also important, but not just to provide vicarious pleasure seen through the demented eyes of fanatical parents, but to teach individuals how to participate graciously with respect and humility.

The mix – academic, cultural and sport – that any school might employ to achieve such ends would be its differentiating factor. Yes tradition is important too, but only if it has relevance to the bigger picture.

Come to think of it, should our businesses, corporations and other institutions here in South Africa not also be considering differentiating themselves along similar lines?





CAN A JOB IN THE INFORMAL SECTOR STILL BE CALLED A ‘REAL’ JOB?

WE can really be a bunch of stereotypically white, Anglo-Saxon, Eurocentric, lemming-like consequences of the Coca-Cola Culture at times. And I include myself in this grouping.

My Scottish grandmother always told me that ‘a man must get a proper job’. After being suitably educated, I went out into the world with her advice humming in my head, searching for this proper job. Somehow I and most of my generation imagined that such a thing incorporated a vocation or career path that had attendant extras such as secretaries, company cars, offices and corporate ladders that had to be climbed. Of course one had to pay taxes along the way, belong to medical aid societies and make provision for the future.

‘If a man has a proper job,’ she would say, ‘he can take on a wee wife at the right time of course, and the bairns will come.’

Those people who did not have proper jobs she regarded with thinly disguised scorn. She called them wastrels and ‘useless chiels’ – people with shaky prospects and uncertain futures.

CAREER TRAJECTORIES

So with smug confidence that we were on suitable career trajectories, we set out in our shiny shoes, double-breasted suits and silk ties. Our hair was stylishly cut and we entertained dreams of fame, fortune, mortgages and respectability – we had proper jobs and we had joined the Establishment! We were chartered accountants, engineers, lawyers, traders, bankers, marketing men, academics, doctors and professionals. We were the people that bodies like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange needed to make the system work properly.

But what about all the people who did not have proper jobs? This marginalized majority; were they just skiving around taking a quick R10 here, another R20 there for dubious services and generally skating on the thin edge of the law? They were certainly not to be taken seriously and played no useful roles in society.

I have been working on this doccie ‘Life is a Hard Road’ for the Carthorse Protection Association and spending time in Bonteheuwel and Schaap Kraal with the CHPA inspectors.

For people who are used to the more affluent suburbs of South Africa, indeed any middle class suburb anywhere in the world, it is difficult to describe life in these parts without sounding melodramatic. Things take on a day-to-day desperate edginess in a society that is riddled with violence, shooting and the pervasive influence of tik.

Two youngsters ran up to inspector Diana Truter. They were young – between 12 and 14 years old. One was dark and had no front teeth. The other was plump and sleepy looking with a slight squint.

Op pas vir hierdie twee,’ said Diana. ‘They are hit men – assassins for this area.’

I asked what they wanted and she gave me a weary smile. ‘Jobs,’ she said.

This got me thinking about this job issue. It was evident that not many people were working, judging from the number of locals lounging around the streets.

MABOY THE WELL LOOKED-AFTER HORSE

We stopped to say hello to Bushy Abrahams in Sweet Pea Street. Bushy is the owner of Maboy, who according to Diana is one of the best looked-after working cart horses in Cape Town.  Bushy loves Maboy as he would his own son.

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‘I learned the cart horse trade from my father,’ he explained. ‘I have fed my family and brought up my children with the scrap that my horses have carried. I have been doing this for a long time.

‘It’s my job, he concluded with quiet pride.

He was building a a new cart for his business in a workshop attached to his stables. All its components came from scrap collections: meranti timber that is making up the chassis and refurbished leaf springs that are becoming the suspension.

‘A cart is expensive,’ Bushy laughs. ‘Why buy one when a man can collect the scrap to make one that is even better?’

We trundled the CHPA bakkie and horse box over to Netreg Way where Bushy’s brother Francois lives. His stables are in the back yard and there is only one access and exit – through the front and back doors of the house.

Francois was pleased to see Diana and insisted that she have a look at his favourite horse, Laban My Kind. I must have looked doubtful that all of Francois Abrahams’ horses go in and out the house on a daily basis. So he instructed driver Waseem Davids to fetch Laban My Kind and bring him out into the street.

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Grinning broadly, Waseem brought Laban My Kind through the house to the front. ‘It’s how they live and although we think that it’s strange, there’s really nothing wrong with it,’ said Diana.

OOM JULIES

At Schaap Kraal we were welcomed by septuagenarian Oom Julies. Although bent over with a pronounced limp, the old man was sprightly and exuded an old world charm. His small holding looked like something out of a Tolkien Middle Earth scene. Thousands of items were stacked, bundled and neatly stowed by category. Washing machines, plant, pipes, car parts and chunks of metal. In the background a group of 12 donkeys in superb condition grazed peacefully.

Oom Julies is one of the oldtimers in the trade,' explained Diana. 'He's been going for a long time.'

On our way back to the CHPA headquarters in Epping, I reflected on some of the peole that I had encountered that day. I realised the Bushy Abrahams, his brother Francois and Oom Julies all had jobs. They had vocations as real as the ones that my peers imagined that they had when they set out to start their careers so many years ago.

The Carties go about their jobs with professional pride and camaraderie. There are bad ones and there are good ones. But then don't get me started on doctors and lawyers...! They fulfill a usefull function  in society - even more useful perhaps than a banker. So what's all this business about a proper job? I asked myself. The Carties feed their families and most of them love their horses more than any racehorse owner might love his pedigeed animal.

I realised how conditioned we are in our structured society; how ossified and largely irrelevant our protocols have become. We worry about how we look, who we do business with and what other people think of us. Many of us would treat a Cartie with disdain and dismiss him as a loser with poor prospects. Yet his days' work experience might be many times richer than that of the average city office worker.

I wished my grandmother was still alive so that we might argue a little.

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Carthorse Protecton Association inspector Zelda Erasmus injects antibiotics into a four-day-old foal which cut its leg.

Andrew Newby March 2015
Why do firms lie?

NEARLY all firms, companies and commercial entities in South Africa are uncomfortably economical when it comes to telling the truth.

They either deliberately withhold information from stakeholders (staff, customers, shareholders, suppliers etc), tell them outright lies or manipulate their information output in such a way that they are cast in a kinder light than the harsh beams of reality might have portrayed them to a cruel world.
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And the most extraordinary thing about this preposterous situation is that nearly all firms believe that they have a God-given right to communicate in this way. After all, this is not personal. It's business. Any business school will teach you that the purpose of business is to maximise profit and if one has to boost the bottom line by telling a few fibs along the way - well, that's how things are and have always been. Think of the businesses that you deal with. Think of your situation at your own firm.

You may well be asking how qualified I am to be making such bald statements that cast aspersions on business in general ... especially with so many organisations these days using the word 'transparency' as the cornerstone of their corporate credence?

Well I can and will. I have been around for a while: several decades in fact. It has never ceased to amaze me when I see how readily companies twist or evade the truth. Honest church-going family individuals leading up large organisations or divisions; most of them lie and conceal at the drop of a hat.The sorry thing is that most of these organisations are no longer around. I can't but help feeling that there has to be a connection between the untruths of their erstwhile leaders and the ultimate sustainability and viability of their existences.

THE CASE OF CI INDUSTRIES AND THE BATHTUB TRAILER

I recall early in my communications career, fresh out of newspapers, doing work for a well-known caravan manufacturer in Pinetown, KZN (actually in those days the province was called Natal).This manufacturer had diversified impressively into the mobile home, truck-trailer and specialised small trailer sectors. Its marketing was clean, clear-cut and unambiguous. The world appeared to be its oyster. This was until it acquired the manufacturing rights for a new US-based heavy trailer brand and head-hunted some new technical staff from its arch opposition. The scuttlebutt in the heavy transport sector was that the fresh staff had come across with some trade secrets involving the manufacture of a high-tech 'bathtub' bulk carrying trailer.

My client was going into production with its version of the 'bathtub' trailer when the story with all of its dodgy implications found its way into the trade and financial press. Now here was a company with a previously squeaky-clean image and unblemished history. Its chief executive was a genial individual  who collected vintage cars, always had a good-humored smile for the Press and owned a Ferrari. How could such a wholesome organization be involved in such nefarious activities?

Because I was involved in their communication, I was called by an old newspaper colleague, Graham Fiford, who had moved up in the world to become Natal editor of the Financial Mail. I was asked: 'Hey Andy bud, now tell me. Is it true that CI stole the Henred bathtub trailer design? I need to know because I'm putting this piece to bed by lunch.'

I immediately put a call through to the marketing director, a tall vain fellow who also collected vintage cars and was obsessed with the 1820 Settlers. I was told in no uncertain terms that CI would never do a thing like that and the allegations were false. I was reminded not to bring the subject up again because it was both vexing and annoying for him to deal with such minor matters.

I relayed the information back to my FM mate and he said thanks, He went ahead with his article on that basis. Several weeks later, after some sharp exchanges between lawyers, injunctions and some appearances in civil courtrooms, it transpired that I had fed Fiford with the wrong information. CI had in fact done the dirty deed and this all emerged reluctantly into the public domain like a dirty object that had been extracted from a blocked drain.

Apart from severing my relationship with the Financial Mail, the incident taught me some valuable lessons. It lifted the wool from my eyes and I learned that my clients were well-practiced liars. They thought that it was OK to communicate untruths in a business environment. They twisted and turned the truth whenever it suited them. They informed me that 'it was warfare out there and the management of any company has the right to use whatever resources that it has at its disposal to keep the ship afloat.' This included lying to the public  as well as to their own employees.

Today that budding Pinetown empire no longer exists. The core caravan section has been swallowed up by their former bitter rival, Jurgens, and the rest of the group including the substantial mobile homes division, either perished or was absorbed by other entities around South Africa. Jurgens CI has its headquarters near Pretoria.

THE CASE OF SHIRE CONSTRUCTION AND ITS CRACK SEALING PROCECURES

Many years ago, I had a client; Shire Construction, once a major force in Natal's civil engineering sector. They were so pious that a pastor was trucked in to bless their newly built headquarters in Westmead before they took occupation. Fervent prayers were regularly murmured in management meetings before whiskey bottles were sent sliding briskly down the board room table in the direction of empty tumblers. When a middle manager reported how much he had cheated the Natal Roads Department in a road surface crack sealing contract, it was drinks all round yet again accompanied by much clapping and congratulations. Shire Construction went bankrupt more than 15 years ago. All that effort in building up a neat, well-run engineering business with impressive core competencies had been wasted.

THE CASE OF A SWEETHEART DEAL THAT LEAVES A SOUR TASTE

Some years back I was doing work for BHP Billiton at its Bayside aluminum smelter in Richards Bay. Now most of us know that there is an electricity supply/price issue in that neck of the woods. This has been brought even more into the public's eye recently with rolling blackouts (euphemistically termed 'load shedding') and rocketing electricity prices. BHP Billiton, which used to be Alusaf, has long enjoyed a 'sweetheart' agreement with Eskom with regard to price and supply of electricity.

It may surprise some people to learn that only several years ago, BHP Billiton's electricity requirements for its three smelters (two in Richards Bay and one in southern Mozambique) from Eskom accounted for nine percent of the utility's total output for the entire southern African region. And what's more, BHP Billiton pays R0.09 per kilowatt hour (reputed to be the world's cheapest rate) compared to the R1 per kilowatt hour paid by the average South Africa. This disparity has only been squeezed out of BHP Billiton and Eskom fairly recently. For many years it was a 'state secret'.

Even I, a mathematical dunce and mediocre economics student, can appreciate that this is neither fair nor sustainable. Yet it's been going on for a very long time. Decades ago. when I first started doing work for the company, I asked then CEO of Alusaf, Rob Barbour, what price the company paid Eskom for electricity. After all I had been tasked with writing advertising copy that gleefully boasted that the smelter produced aluminum so efficiently and cost effectively.

'I'm afraid I can't tell you that,' he replied. 'This is a strategic situation.'

What Rob Barbour really meant was that Alusaf's avowed communications strategy included not only withholding the truth because it had been deemed a state secret, but also because Alusaf simply did not want anyone to know. Like a smutty in-joke, management only told those whom they felt they could trust and those whom they wanted to let in on this dirty little secret. Little did Barbour realise that this lack of transparency would return one day to bite the organisation (to become BHP Billiton), the Government and Eskom on their respective backsides. South Africans would one day be as mad as snakes and clamour to know why this situation should continue.

Four years ago I asked senior BHP Billiton  managers when the Bayside smelter would be closing because it was clearly not viable to keep on flogging a dead horse.

'Never,' was the reply. 'Bayside will continue operating. It is a profitable facility.' Well, last year BHP Billiton closed down its Bayside smelter, leaving the Hillside smelter up the road and the Mozal smelter in southern Mozambique still running at full capacities. The 'sweetheart' arrangement continues to support these operations - although nobody likes to speak about it too much and in Richards Bay it's considered bad form to draw attention to it.

It would be nice to believe that the artificially low tariff is in some way redeemed by the foreign exchange that it brings in. But sadly this is not the case. Most of the revenue is never circulated locally; it finds its way offshore to BHP Billiton's Melbourne headquarters. This too is not a popular subject and comprises a large elephant in the room that is the Richards Bay district. Of course those locals that are still there worry about their jobs. But job opportunities have gradually declined - victims of the Australian-based monolith's ruthless international cost-cutting programmes.

If ever a pro-globalisation, pro-corporate ideology has damaged a country, it's been this lengthy chain of events being played out here in South Africa: an ongoing unholy alliance between Pretoria, parastatal bumbler Eskom and the aluminum smelter Alusaf-which-became-BHP-Billiton. The damage being effected with so many lies, conceled secrets, smoke and lots of mirrors. This alliance tinkered behind closed doors with South Africa's money and resources, then one member ran away with the profits. The ones who suffer have always been ordinary South Africans , mostly poor people.
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THE CASE OF DORBYL AND THE MISSING MILLIONS

At one time Dorbyl, formerly Dorman Long & Vanderbijl, was the biggest heavy engineering outfit in Africa. It was a landmark name on the South African industrial terrain, having earned its reputation in the relentless and unforgiving business of steel production. Over the years, Dorbyl diversified into other engineering activities: ship building and repair, buses, locomotives and rolling stock, steel pipes (Stewarts & Lloyds) automotive components (Johnson Controls), retail automotive chains (Midas) and numerous other well-known operations.

In its heyday, I made a corporate film for them, wrote brochure copy and  directed photography. Dorbyl had a CEO. Shall we call him Wild Bill? He was a genuine General Rockjaw; tough, aggressive, unforgiving and with the personality of a Black Mamba. I recall filming a Dorbyl meeting attended by divisional managers and directors, headed up by Wild Bill. One by one, he demolished each individual to a silent wreck, sparing neither insult nor humiliating remark. I felt so demoralised and flat for these senior managers that I had difficulty keeping focus and exposure.

'Bill can get on his high horse,' remarked the Dorbyl PR lady cheerfully after the meeting as she dished out tea and biscuits for the camera crew. 'He never lets up. He worries about what the JSE analysts think. Although you know, Dorbyl's share price is quite good today.'

Fast forward a decade or so and global engineering markets have changed profoundly - thanks mainly to China's enormous resource consumption and cheap skilled labour. Dorbyl is unbundled. It no longer exists as an industrial heavyweight. In fact there's a firm called Guestro Castings & Machining in Benoni which is all that remains of this once mighty empire. For an organisation that at one time generated 35 000 jobs, the several hundred people now employed on the East Rand stand as a stark reminder of the group's fortunes.

The fallout that emerged from this deconstruction process was quite extraordinary. The finance director ended up in court trying to explain where the R40-odd million that he had expropriated was now sitting. Wild Bill had taken it upon himself to spend lengthy periods in the United States where he was overseeing the disposal of a US housing company, Alpine Housing, that Dorbyl had previously acquired. Not being in South Africa to keep watch on his finance director who was assidiously applying his creative accounting talents to purloin  funds that were flowing out of the unbundling process, Wild Bill eventually facilitated the sale of the housing company for $158 million. He was paid a handsome bonus for his efforts. But not long afterwards things went a little pear-shaped when it was discovered that Wild Bill was actually part of the US consortium. Although he had only 0.4% share in the consortium, he had effectively sold a fraction of a Dorbyl asset to himself. To rub salt into the sting, Alpine was resold only months afterwards for a whopping $250 million. Where is Wild Bill these days? He appears not to be in South Africa.

Wild Bill tried to convey the image of being a tough but honest cowboy; a no-nonsense Dead-Eye Dick who could be relied upon to get things done. In the end he showed himself to be nothing more than a conniving bully. His finance director was a simple crook with access to large sums of cash. In fact time and again, senior businessmen, company owners and majority shareholders lie and manipulate the truth in the name of sound business practice, but are really only motivated by two things: greed and their own egos.

It's the sort of greed that little people, the worker ants in large organisational structures can only aspire to but never indulge in because they don't have the opportunity to do so. But the damage already done lies in a persuasive corporate culture of lies and evasive actions. If the big guys do it, then the little ones follow suit. You lie to protect the mother ship, even if it does eventually spit you out when your usefulness has run its course.

THE CASE FOR AN EASIER WAY

Would it not be easier if we communicated clearly and openly at all levels of commercial intercourse? Would life not be a lot sweeter if we did not have to continually second-guess the next guy's move? Wouldn't a lot of time and trouble be saved in the long-term? Can we not rid ourselves of this obsessive mindset of having to keep our cards so close to our collective chests 'because these are Company Secrets being held in our sweaty paws?

Finally, could we not work towards eradicating this all-consuming greed that seems to lurk in most human chests? Open and truthful communication is perhaps a lot more important than most of us imagine it to be. The companies that do indeed practice it stand out like beacons on a sunlit beach.

Andrew Newby February 2015

Ever Thought About Making Your Own Videos?

AS we come to terms with the fact that the Festive Season is over and that 2015 has well and truly arrived, some of us might have this uncomfortable feeling that difficult times lie ahead. There just seem to be too many variables, curved balls, ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybe-maybe nots’ flying around.

We are all human and human beings crave certainty. We want to know that we have things in control … that we are well prepared for any eventuality that might befall us. But we also know how rapidly established realities tend to fall apart these days. Markets swing in the wrong direction, economies slump, fickle customers become even more capricious and unseen forces conspire to snatch the carpet out from underneath our feet.

SOME ADVICE

There’s nothing that FarSide Productions can say or do to neutralise these market vagaries. They are part and parcel of our existence and what we do. But we can suggest a few things that might reinforce your attitude and make you more capable and more importantly … more positive in your dealings with whatever might come your way.

Our New Year advice is: ‘Take control of your marketing destiny!’

Be proactive; explore all available techniques and methods to enhance customer relationships and engagements; review your tried and tested but aging marketing mix that has stood you in good stead for the past two decades and see why it might not be working as well as it was five years ago. Above all, think out of the box, understand what’s going on around you and communicate at all times – externally and internally.

EMBRACE CHANGE

This means getting out there and embracing change because all those nasty feelings mentioned above stem mostly from the winds of change blowing through our ranks. Communicating effectively, consistently and appropriately in the long-term requires long-haul energy and commitment. You already know that video is the one tool that goes a long way in addressing this need. But moving pictures are expensive and burn up lots of energy. They necessitate dealing with these high-maintenance video companies who don’t really know (and probably don’t care either) how your business works. You know that you should be using more video, but quite frankly, it’s a pain in the butt.

But does it have to be expensive? And should it cause you so much discomfort and distress? Why can’t you take on many of your video productions yourself – using the combined talents of those people inside your organisation? This may well be you. Because, who knows more about how your company works than yourself?

THOSE PESKY PRODUCTION HOUSES

Aha, you say, I may know how to: sell insurance, manufacture automotive parts, supply specialised IT services for the medical sector … and many other things (tick where applicable). But I don’t actually know how to produce video programmes. This is where those pesky video production companies have us over a barrel. They know stuff that we don’t know, just like we know stuff that they don’t know.

Well there is some truth in those sentiments. But we don’t really have you over a barrel. We just like it when you believe that’s the case. The fact of the matter is that if we are really as good at what we say we can do, there will always be space in the market for specialised video and communication services. Actually most organisations have the collective capability to put together a little 60-second to three minute show that can go up on YouTube, be embedded in a web site, e-news letter or sales person’s tablet for a one-on-one customer presentation.

COMPACT IS GOOD

The Digital Age has made all of this possible. Consider this scenario: these days I walk around with a small black, slightly scruffy bag (my daughter refers to it as a ‘man bag’) and inside is a Sony smart phone, a small bracket that snaps on to the phone that allows it to be screwed on to a miniscule table-top tripod. Along with the phone, bracket and tripod, I also carry in the bag a Panasonic digital dictaphone/sound recorder (the sort that reporters use to interview people).

The smart phone has 16 gigs of internal memory and I can insert a further 64-gig micro SD card if that‘s not sufficient. The recorder runs for hours before filling up. The contents of both are easily downloaded into a laptop or desktop PC. If I so desire, I can shoot 4K with this phone, but ordinary old HD is more than enough for most pu rposes.diycameraman.

So here we have the basis of an elementary shooting rig for well under 8K. It’s so portable that it makes no demands on its user because most people carry smart phones anyway. If the user wants to use a more conventional camera, there are a plethora of them available on the market: Sanyo, Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus. Most of them have offerings in the DSLR or camcorder categories that shoot in fairly high quality HD. A low-cost aluminum tripod can be had for less than 1K and a cheap lapel or lavalier wired microphone can be bought for several hundred rand to take care of the audio requirements.

WHAT ABOUT THE EDITING?

But what about the editing? You may well ask. In the old analogue days, production companies had to shell out hundreds of thousands of rands to edit the ubiquitous bulky Betacam tapes that were generated in any production – big or small.

These days, we’re well into the Digital Age and suppliers are offering consumer editing software that can be acquired instantly online for a few hundred rand. Professional production houses use Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Adobe’s Premiere software. Here at FarSide we use Avid Media Composer from the US. There’s also a programme from Sony called Vegas and Grass Valley’s Edius is capable of handling a feature movie. All of these high-end programmes have mammoth learning curves, are mostly expensive to purchase and have outrageous hardware requirements in terms of graphic cards, motherboards and memory.

But some of the entry level programmes designed for beginners are extremely intuitive. The British trakAxPC software is not at all expensive, can be learned in several hours and has direct YouTube upload capability. At a pinch, a person can put a very simple video together using Windows’ Movie Maker programme which comes free.

The perceived difficulty in making video productions usually lies in equipment operation and post production. Admittedly, putting together a little show requires a carefully crafted workflow. But when one looks at the combined capabilities of most organisations, it is by no means an insurmountable task.

COMMIT EVERYTHING TO PAPER

In truth, the actual difficulty in making video productions lies more in the attitude (or lack of it) of the person or people trying to make the show. If they are very clear about what they want to communicate and they set about their task logically but at the same time, creatively, they should not have a problem. Writing the script is the single biggest (and most hidden hurdle). Legendary film maker Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather series, Apocolypse Now, The Rainmaker, The Great Gatsby, One from the Heart etc) has gone on record as saying that he is perfectly confident of every aspect of film making: the shooting, directing, editing and post production etc. But he is most nervous about the writing aspect of the task in hand. Coppola commits everything to paper. He writes everything down, starting in his words with ‘a big pile of dough’ and gradually reduces it to the shape of the story that he wants to tell. Once that is in place, everything else falls into place. Making a three-minute product video is no different. It just requires some cerebral effort.

I suggest that to learn how to make short videos on quick demand in response to shifting market changes, one should approach a reputable video production house (or better still, a video training facility) to become familiar with some of the basics.

The companies that normally provide video services might feel threatened by their customers hiving off and making their own shows, then having the effrontery to request assistance to facilitate this move! If this is in fact the case, then these production houses should have a long, hard look into their own operations. Because they too are in the businesses of trying to make it in an intensely competitive environment. They also need to re-visit their status in a changing order.

EMERGENCE OF A VALUE-ADDED CULTURE

To succeed in that order requires collaborative relationships and trust. A value-adding culture is emerging and video production companies need to work with their clients to establish longer-term relationships and forego the ‘rip the ring out if you possibly can’ syndrome. There will always be the higher-end work coming from those customers that require more than a consumer camcorder and entry-level edit programme. That’s where the future lies for the production houses of tomorrow.

For those companies who build their capacity in the moving pictures department, the rewards over time will be great. They don’t have to aspire to Coppola productions – they just have to become proficient in communicating their stories in honest little 2-3 minute productions. They will succeed if they flight them at the right time off the right platforms. They will emerge with a greater understanding of what’s happening in the media milieu along with a boosted confidence to deal with all those curved balls spinning that are spinning around their heads.

Andrew Newby January 2015




CURRENT PROJECTS: A video for the Carthorse Protection Association


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Benjy takes a rest on a hot summer's day.

 THE Carthorse Protection Association must surely rate as one of the top contenders for the ‘Cinderella NGO/Charity of South Africa’ title (if there was indeed such a competition).

Yes, nearly all charities and many NGOs do great work and make differences in many peoples’ lives. There are many that I would gladly support. But somehow the Carthorse Protection Association (CHPA) is the one that stands out above all the others. Perhaps it’s just my psychological makeup that resonates so finely with the mission of this particular organisation, its people and of course its stock in trade, which are the cart horses and Carties of Cape Town.

It's a Cape Thing

This is a Cape Thing … going all the way to District Six and before. My grandfather, who was born in Simon’s Town in 1894, used to relate childhood tales of the snoek cart; its arrival was preceded by the distinctive sound of its horn being blown. This alerted locals to get outside into the streets in time to select their snoek, fresh off the cart from fishing boats of False Bay. In District Six horse-drawn carts were used widely for general transport, removals, deliveries, vegetable sales and other smous activities.

Tragically these activities started evaporating with the implementation of the Group Areas Act by the Nationalist Government in 1968. As the coloured people of Cape Town and surrounds were forcibly removed to the Cape Flats and other outlying areas, the Carties and their horses (along with many other victims of the relocation programme) faced an uncertain future. They were forced to turn to the scrap metal trade to eke out a living on the uncharitable, wind-blown, sandy spaces of the Flats. Distances were long, pickings were few and misery abounded.

 Although the community spirit of the old Carties and their steeds all but evaporated, somehow the phenomenon of horse-drawn transport in the Cape survived – but not without terrible hardship and suffering. Horses were overworked and it was not uncommon for one to collapse and die on the road while struggling with an overloaded cart. Ignorance on the part of the operators was rife, mainly because owners hired their animals out to rookie drivers who knew little or nothing about animal husbandry and equine needs. The dubious criminal association with the scrap metal industry (which has always been notorious for operating on the other side of the law if need be) further eroded the fine tradition that the Carties once enjoyed.

barebackcartie. 

A Cartie takes a chance riding his steed home bareback after getting her re-shod at the CHPA facility in Epping. They are not supposed to ride their horses sans saddle, but clearly some of the Carties revel in the Wild West chaos created as they come  galloping through the traffic. Nobody can fault this youngster's riding skills!

The Cart Horse Protection Association is formed in 1995

In 1995 some concerned individuals, really worried about what they were seeing on the roads daily, started up what became the Cart Horse Protection Association of today. Its mission lay in the eponymous nature of its title. The body was formed to protect cart horses, but in doing so, it had to get as many of the Carties (operators and owners) on board as possible.

To boost the general wellbeing of Cape Town’s carthorses, the people who formed the CHPA realised that they were in for a long-haul programme that would require extensive education, fund-raising, policing, veterinary services, infrastructural support and a lot more. It was a mammoth project and it required really special people to make it work.

My interest in the organisation was piqued when my daughter announced that she wanted to make her first full-length documentary about the Carties and their horses. Ever since she could walk, she has been fascinated by horses and it was inevitable that she would turn her attention to the cart horses that klop past our home several times a week (more can be read about her project on her blog http://lifeisahardroad.wordpress.com/). After dropping her off and fetching her at the CHPA’s headquarters in Epping several times, I was so impressed with the work being done and the people doing it that I decided that I had to contribute something. If I were Christo Wiese or Patrice Motsepe, I would have immediately written out a cheque to the CHPA for a million rands or more. But since I'm neither of those two gentlemen, I offered what I had, which were my video and communications expertise and services.

valhallapark.

Filming in the informal settlement area of Valhalla Park.

CHPA turns 20 this year

I was delighted when general manager Megan White responded by saying that they would be grateful if I could make a production that could commemorate the first two decades of the Cart Horse Protection Association's activities in Cape Town. The organisation turns 20 this year. We have had prelimininary meetings with Senior Inspector Diana Truter and begun shooting some general scenes. It's going to be an interesting and I suspect, intensely gratifying project. We will keep you informed in this space on Portal View.

PS My daughter's Life is a Hard Road doccie is still going ahead. But it's taking longer than originally anticipated. Possibly she bit off a little more than she could chew - so we have made it a father-and-daughter production and she can still call herself the Director!

Have a look at some of the early clips that we have shot:


Andrew Newby January 2015


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