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South Africa and Italy

November 2011

Two recent holiday trips highlighted the differences between our country and Italy. We were fortunate to have a three-week holiday in Italy and then we took Vincent, a young black student, to see the sea for the first time. The table below illustrates some of the factual differences:


South Africa




1,221,037 m2

301,338 m2

SA 4x larger




More Italians




Much the same

GDP per person



Italians nearly 4x more wealthy

Largest City

Jhb – 3,888m

Rome – 2,761m

SA’s main cities much larger

2nd largest City

CT – 3,497m

Milan – 1,324m




SA huge

Youth Unemployment



SA huge but Italy also significant

Tourism as % of GDP



SA growing rapidly

Average rainfall

50cm (0-250)

86cm (50 – 200)

SA more extremes

The one thing that really strikes you about Italy is that every bit of land is farmed. Every small holding/house has tomatoes, lettuce, maize etc. growing. There are vineyards everywhere. A lot of the large farmlands had recently been ploughed to ready it for the next planting. As a result of all this growth, the food is fresh and delicious. Not a preservative in sight. Interesting as well, were the food shops in small towns that were open until 20h00 at night. No display of sweets and chocolates by the till. We therefore didn’t see any obese Italians.

The fresh produce markets in the towns are also an absolute delight, mostly manned by middle-aged to senior Italians. Travelling down the N2 to Durban, we were struck by the amount of unused land and little show of vegetable growing. There are plenty of mealie fields and wheat fields,  but certainly not covering all the land. Water is scarcer in SA, but what about drip irrigation? – so successful in water scarce Israel.

Less people, more land, a population needing fresh vegetables for healthy nutritional eating and yet, as a country we are not promoting farming as a key strategic driver. South Africans need to see the value of growing and consuming their own vegetables and how this would make a positive difference in their lives. This won’t happen overnight, but requires ongoing education and understanding over many generations.

Doing business in Italy is expensive. We were chatting to a young woman who was thinking of returning to her homeland Poland, as it is much cheaper to start a business there. In Poland, you need $1 000. In Italy, you need to take out a loan to purchase the license to do business. In a family-run business, it is only the third generation that actually makes profits, due to the excessive start-up costs.

Here in SA, it is not costly to register a company. It just takes an unacceptably long time to get a registration number. The problem is that there is very little funding available for young entrepreneurs in South Africa. In Italy, there are grandparents and parents who have worked hard in a first-world economy and are able to provide both knowledge and financial support. In SA, most young school leavers and graduates enter the job market with no role models to guide them on how a business works, and no immediate funding. Shouldn’t the Youth League be using its funds to help start-up businesses, rather than waste money on “no value” conferences? Unemployment among the youth is a problem in both countries, especially in SA. In Italy most of the work in the tourist sector seemed to be done by middle-aged people. The youth were not really seen. South Africa is in a very similar situation. However, the major disadvantage here is that the majority of the youth have no business network to count on. Getting a job these days relies on who you know. 60% of graduates in SA are without a job, as illustrated by Vincent’s two cousins who came with us to the coast. Both cousins have been unemployed since leaving school in 2008 and it is not through want of trying and sending in CV after CV. However, they don’t have the same business networks we had with our parents when we left school or varsity, like the youth have today in Italy. Wouldn’t you rather employ someone that was referred to you, rather than go through 1,000s of CVs to try and find a match? Those of us with networks need to open them up these days to include some of our unemployed youth (including the 60% unemployed graduates) or else they will not find jobs.

The tourist sites in Italy are very well managed. You can book tours over the Internet and bypass the three-hour queues. Well informed guides are always available, at a price! Sometimes, however, tourist sites are hugely overstaffed, e.g. four people to operate a lift! Hence Italy’s shaky economy. In SA, there are great tourist sites and inconsistent badly run ones. C Freaks at Shelly Beach offers a dry launch into the sea, comfy seats to view dolphins and whales, and an excellent skipper who increased the adrenaline rush of our three young guys - who had never been on a boat before - by doing doughnuts and jumping the waves. Excellent service. It should be the same for every site. We don’t have to overstaff the sites, but train the people well. More tourists will be attracted to SA and hence more jobs and money will flow into our economy. Being in the tourist areas, we didn’t see any sign of the current poor state of Italy’s economy and there were many tourists visiting from all around the world.

There might be some bias from us, but SA is more beautiful. Where in the world can you travel from a large city, to vast farming land, to spectacular mountain ranges and to the sea, all in a six-hour drive? SA’s highways are also cleaner than those in Italy. The highway around Naples is filthy. People seem to just throw their rubbish out their car windows as they are driving. Italy is also very beautiful in other ways; the Amalfi coast is spectacular and much more attractive than the monstrosities in Bantry Bay and Clifton.

What could SA learn from Italy?

  • Continue to focus on growing our tourism sector

  • Increase support for smaller farmers and support local markets to encourage the growth of fresh produce

Would we move to Italy – no way, SA is still the place to be!


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