I hope one of my former colleagues decides to put himself forward as a Parliamentary candidate one day. If anyone is an exemplary new South African, it is Pepe Marais.
I was absolutely delighted when he connected with me on Twitter recently. I was also surprised. He is so busy and I took it for granted, quite wrongly, that he must have much more on his mind than taking a few minutes to catch up with people who have passed him briefly on his swift journey up the career and business ladder.
Of all the people I worked with in my first job after graduating from university, Pepe Marais is undoubtedly the one who has given the impression of achieving the greatest success in his career. He has won so many creative awards, I can’t imagine he has been able to keep count.
In addition to his artistic talents, Pepe is an entrepreneur, creating jobs and contributing to the economy. He founded Joe Public, a thriving advertising agency that came up with the novel idea to serve advertising with a take-away theme to keep costs contained for clients. It has evolved over the years, now focusing on “media agnostic strategies” and growth. Joe Public has been a trend-setter in a very trendy environment.
If you know the advertising industry, you will be aware that the people who work in this sector have a reputation for being materialistic, brand conscious and generally self-serving. There again, Pepe Marais bucks the trend.
His focus on Joe Public has spread beyond his capitalist endeavours. Pepe’s priority these days is a project called One School at a Time.
Pepe told me that he keeps working on his business so that it can feed into this project, which is aimed at improving the quality of education in impoverished communities. He has roped some of his clients into One School at a Time.
Pepe is incredibly ambitious for this programme, which has a funding element but more importantly requires much time and individual input by him and the other people who support the project.
He started One School at a Time after coming to the conclusion that the only way to really improve life in South Africa is through education. Many other people, well-connected influential people, know this too, but few have taken steps like Pepe Marais has to transform convictions into actions.
A few months ago I was asked to write a feature on corporate social investing (CSI) for an upmarket magazine aimed at higher net worth individuals. It was the perfect opportunity to connect with Pepe once again and hear more about One School at a Time.
The project, as you might expect from one of the best creative brains in South Africa, takes an innovative approach to making a difference to people who need it the most. Of course, that’s what everyone who has a CSI project will say, but in this case the commitment of the people driving the programme goes beyond numbers and reporting in a glossy brochure for shareholders. They also take advantage of their lateral thinking abilities.
For example, One School at a Time ran a radio campaign which demonstrated a young South African’s progress after receiving regular English lessons. Another media campaign uses radio frequencies to speak to people in their cars about why people beg in South Africa.
The creative work to raise awareness is only a small aspect of the project. Marais and his team spend much time at schools, for example brainstorming ideas with school managers on how to do things differently in circumstances that require fresh thinking.
I interviewed the head of the Johannesburg secondary over the phone, from my work base near Edinburgh.
This is a school where 70% of the pupils are orphans. Only they don’t live in an orphanage.
These teenagers are running households of children whose parents have been wiped out by HIV/Aids. It is a school where pupils are genuinely excited when they win a carrot or some other vegetable as a reward for a successfully completing a maths exercise or for picking up litter in the school grounds.
Can you imagine a whole community of children growing up without parents to love and look after them, serve as role models and motivate them to improve their circumstances? These are young people living off modest social grants and tips they receive for waving motorists into parking spots at shopping centres; children who have to find their own rent, albeit for squalid accommodation, and are supposed to scrape together modest school fees.
Of this I have no doubt: Pepe Marais is playing a role where it is needed the most. He is also doing this from the bottom of his heart for the people who matter to him the most – his fellow citizens.
You can read the magazine feature that highlights One School at a Time on my blog. Find out more about One School at a Time.