It was a full bar, it was past midnight and we were obviously not locals. There were already fisticuffs in progress as we arrived at the door. I had immediate second thoughts – too bad the taxi had already left! Luckily, my friend Ricky had been doing business in Angola for many years; he’d seen this movie before.

They wanted fifty dollars each for entrance. Pretty steep – but it wasn’t like we had a choice. But what turned the night into a success was Ricky giving an extra fifty to the bouncer and asking him to keep an eye out for us.

After that, we had a personal bodyguard for the night! Our drinks were even ordered for us. By the time we were in VIP area, we were the most wanted “celebs” in the club. Ricky even started talking petrochemicals business with the guy in sunglasses – I’m not sure how much came of that, though.

Rules are rules. But sometimes rules mean nothing on the mean streets of African business. So which one will serve you better, book smarts, or street smarts?

Being the bunch of streetwise hustlers we all are, I’m sure each of us can vouch for the value of street smarts.

After all, streets smarts is all about practical skills, where book smarts is just theory. And the world is littered with examples of self-made men without university degrees who rose to greatness on the strength of their savvy, their people skills, their quick adaptability and the lessons they’ve learnt from their experience.

South African president Jacob Zuma famously received no formal schooling and he ended up leading one of the most powerful nations on our continent. Steve Jobs had no college degree and came to found an iconic brand that defines our very epoch. Likewise Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and Richard Branson.

And don’t forget the cautionary tale of former South African president Thabo Mbeki. A master’s degree in African studies, but recalled from the presidency by his party after some extremely streetwise political and intelligence machinations. To be replaced by the not-very-book-smart Mr Zuma!

So in South Africa it seems we’re living through the definitive political era of street smarts’ triumph over book smarts.

But anyone hoping to get ahead in business, or life, will also tell you it’s not a zero-sum game. There’s no point in life where you need to choose between street or book knowledge. You can have it all!

And many a street hustler has later espoused the value of book learning. Even President Zuma has established the KwaZulu-Natal RDP Bursary Fund to assist students at primary and tertiary level.


South Africa’s dismal education system is sadly a triumph of corrupt street smarts over naïve book smarts, where looting tenderpreneurs have enriched themselves at the expense of our youth’s education – no matter how much budget our bookish parliamentarians throw at the problem. 

As Stellenbosch researcher Nicholas Spaull has noted, half of South African students drop out before they reach their matric year. It would be a foolish man who reckons these dropouts can rely on their street smarts to secure their future. But now they’ll have little choice.

Anyone hoping to do business in Africa, though, will need to hone their skills in both book and street smarts to deal successfully.

Sometimes the two offer you contradictory advice; sometimes the two complement each other. Like we said, ain’t no zero-sum game. We need all the skills at our disposal, whether they were learnt at the school of business, or the school of hard knocks.

Book smarts is when you enlist a local funder to finance your venture as per local regulations. Street smarts is when he withholds funding until you go bust, then buys up 100 % of your liquidated development for a song.

Book smarts is when you buy a suit from a tailor in Mauritius. Street smarts is when he doesn’t put a label on it so you can stroll through customs without having to declare it.

Book smarts is getting a good deal at your hotel. Street smarts is when they reveal the hidden lunch and drinks costs on the last day, as your airport shuttle is revving in the driveway and your flight leaves in 90 minutes.

Book smarts is knowing what the local exchange rate is. Street smarts is paying the guy in dollars and getting away for a third of the price.

Book smarts is getting all eight of the driving permits you require for a visit to a neighbouring state, and budgeting a couple of grand for “traffic fines”. Street smarts is flying in and letting the taxi driver take care of transport.

Book smarts is when you itemise the special commission for the local middleman as “expanded rights negotiated”. Street smarts is when he’s the president’s nephew. 

Book smarts is paying your employees. Street smarts is supporting their communities.

Ultimately, book smarts is doing business in Africa. Street smarts is being African. Negotiating as equals, as partners and comrades is a form of communication in itself. Doing it successfully will mean securing a good deal and forming a new partnership for the future. To do that effectively you’ll need many weapons in your armoury – a cunning combination of book and street smarts.