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The Silicon Valley of sun

In May 1961, President Kennedy addressed a special session of the US Congress. It was the height of the Cold War. There was a sense in the land that the US was falling behind and needed to pick up its game. Kennedy announced a number of initiatives, mostly now forgotten. The last, however, has proved indelible: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

A big, hairy, audacious goal, to use a business-school cliché. A Bhag. Maybe it’s time for something similar in South Africa.

People are starting to worry that we’re reaching a tipping point. Their fears are driven by crime, political uncertainty and a creeping sense of institutional rot, all compounded by the electricity crisis. Stereotypical thinking is a factor. A gloomy international environment isn’t helping either. Dress it up however you will, morale is low. Even Stuart Pennington of South Africa: The Good News is not quite as jaunty as usual. He’s politely asking for leaders to lead.

Some will immediately say that we already have a Bhag: hosting a successful World Cup. That certainly meets the definition of big, hairy and audacious. The thing is, many countries have hosted the World Cup. OK, we’re the first African country to do it but, pardon the heresy, couldn’t that be read in more than one way? The bragging rights that come from being able to do something that others do routinely are perhaps less formidable than those that come from being unequivocally at the top of the heap.

Let’s say we do host the World Cup brilliantly — and I’m confident we will. What we will have proved is that … we can host a World Cup brilliantly. Just like Germany, or Japan and South Korea, or the US. And the Fifa caravan will move on, leaving us with a train and some nice stadiums.

So I’d like to suggest another Bhag, one whose attainment has the potential to resonate for generations to come while, in the nearer term, rallying the nation, creating major employment opportunities and converting crisis into triumph.

South Africa should set itself the goal of becoming the world’s leading per capita producer and consumer of solar power by a certain date, making itself a mecca for scientists, inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs. For anyone interested in solar energy, South Africa should be the place to be, the place where the breakthroughs occur, the Nobel prizes are won, a new set of industries is launched and great fortunes are made. The Silicon Valley of sun.

Feasible? What would it take to make it happen?