/ 12 February 2021

Q&A Sessions: ‘Post Office was a journey of faith’

Mark Barnes Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Outspoken, even difficult: Mark Barnes says if governments want power, they should create independent citizens with their own economic force. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

How would you describe your childhood in Belfast, Mpumalanga, and the influence your parents had on your personal development?

My parents didn’t really have a big influence on my personal development because I was in boarding schools at various schools since standard 2 (grade 4). My father left us when I was about six years old, but my mother, in terms of value systems, had a huge influence on me.

She was a nurse by profession and a very ordinary and honest human being. I have an older brother and younger sister and we were all adopted. My mother was a kind person. Someone once said: “June Barnes might not have fancy clothes, but they are always clean and ironed.”

That summarises my mother. She died last year. I was sent off to boarding school because I was quite a naughty child. Later on I went to Hoërskool Belfast and thanks to that I’m fully bilingual, I can even “vry” in Afrikaans. I guess I could have been described as a “poor white” in those days, but we had quite a good upbringing and a very good education. It was only when I moved to Johannesburg that I saw things that I didn’t have. Wealth is a relative measure. My hypothesis on money is quite simple: the value of money is not measured by its abundance; it’s measured by its absence.

Industry professionals often use adjectives like “brilliant”, “outspoken”, “hardworking” and even “difficult” to describe you. You are a significant shareholder on the JSE-listed Purple Group with over 30 years’ experience in financial services. What would you regard as the highlights of your career?

At the Post Office I managed to have an impact on the system I presided over and that is something I could never do in the private sector. I went into the Post Office as a businessman from a very different world. The challenge was to go into that difficult and different environment and find very different rewards to money. We managed to enable, inform and educate people who were previously sidelined and not heard. There were also other highlights in my commercial career with major positions in finance, but at the Post Office people were prepared to give me a chance, probably even before I deserved the opportunity.

In August 2019 you resigned as the chief executive, with immediate effect. Why?

I saw the Post Office as an extension of government, which gives it certain rights,

protections and reasons for being, not all of which are commercial.
Second, I saw it as a commercially irreplaceable infrastructure that was close to the people all over the country and it had a bank inside of it. I told Mr Ramaphosa, who was the deputy president at the time, that I see a growth story and I see every counter of the Post Office as a channel to and from the citizens of South Africa and we can deliver and collect anything through that channel. That’s why we fought to get Sassa [South African Social Security Agency] grants, because we didn’t see it [grants] as a business, but as a service. It was for me absolutely necessary to have the bank inside the Post Office in order to provide an efficient clearing system for all transactions. When we got social grants, it was obvious to me where the growth capital should be allocated and that we should be growing the bank, because it was the future.

The Post Office is an extraordinarily valuable thing, because it has access to all manner of citizen data. So I suggested that we centralise the technology of government, in other words have a central mega computer containing all this data. I think a lot of people were impacted by this bold strategy. In my world, all of those integrated systems are required for anything to survive. When it was decided to take the bank out of it, I knew I had to leave. During my tenure at the Post Office we changed the culture of the people, but not with money. We were on a journey of faith, a journey of self-confidence and one of purpose. I went to the Post Office not only to change it, but to fix me. I wanted to go somewhere where I was exposed to value systems and challenges. I went there to teach and ended up learning, because people trusted me.

As an investment banker, what is your view on South Africa’s financial services sector?

I think for now we have a solid and functional banking system in the country. It appears to be one of the things that stood the test of time and maintained quite a high degree of independence. My criticism is that established economic capital circulates amongst fewer and fewer people. If you look at Sandton City or the V&A Waterfront, you will find that the buildings are getting taller but none of them are built across the highway in Alexandra.

This is not only a South African problem, but an international trend.

Structurally we need to move away from traditional, established flows of capital and allow capital to come out of the formal stock markets and financial systems and go at risk into the real economy where people are still producing things and where they do not have the right cost of capital to enable growth. Democracy cannot work if the majority of the population is not middle class. It creates a disconnect between economic power and political power. We need to move away from social rescue to social development.

If you were afforded the opportunity to give the South African government one

piece of sound financial advice, what would it be?

Government should form and respect partnerships with expertise before they hand out money. We need to get into more public-private partnerships. In order to save our country’s economy we need to marry the pools of capital with power and influence.

In the apartheid regime economic power and political power were in the same place, but they are not anymore.

Secondly, we need to find an appropriate mixture of expertise and capital then stand back and allow it to work. If you want power, create independent citizens with their own economic force. If you think you can buy power with a T-shirt and a food parcel, you are seriously confused.

As a father of six, what legacy would you want to leave behind?

I’m a father and grandfather and I always tell my children to be bold and live an adventurous life. As a father I stand behind my children and not in front of them. I would like them to remember me as a decent man who added value to people’s lives and someone who never took himself too seriously. They should also remember me as a fun and naughty dad. I believe that you should be who you are to the best of your ability. As South Africans we also have to listen to each other and learn more about each other’s environments.

You are a keen golfer, but also collect art. How often do you purchase art?

I’m a lousy, but enthusiastic golfer [Laughs]. I choose art by deciding whether or not I like it. If I find two pieces I like I would consult an expert to determine which one is the better buy. In your personal space it’s important to surround yourself with things that make you feel better and that you enjoy, regardless of its monetary value. Be brave enough to live your reality and who you are and you’ll end up surrounding yourself with people who like you.

What is your favourite pastime?

I love fishing and I own a trout farm in Dullstroom. My new thing in life, which I discovered in the last five years, is writing. I write columns and I just signed a contract with a publisher to write a book. I regret that I didn’t spend more time studying English.

My favourite thing in the world is teaching and I’m capable of distilling and communicating essence.