– South Africa in 1995 was going through one of the most profound transitions of the century. President Nelson Mandela had been swept to power in an election that ended centuries of racial segregation. But his government had inherited a stagnant economy with high levels of unemployment and public debt. In business, South African companies finally had access to international markets after decades of isolation. Yet they also faced an influx of global competitors, making modernization essential.
It was in this eventful context that McKinsey opened in Johannesburg—our first permanent presence in Africa—with a handful of consultants drawn from our European and North American offices. "We were crammed into a single office—experienced partners and newly minted associates alike," says David Fine, the first South African to join the new operation. "The sense of possibility was palpable. We were the only top management consulting firm in the country, and we went knocking on CEOs' doors. Before long, we were helping several of the largest companies rethink their strategies and reshape their operations."
This week our Johannesburg office marks its 20th anniversary with a series of events that bring CEOs and government leaders together with our firm's global leadership. There's a lot to celebrate. Our presence in South Africa has grown to around 200 consultants. After sustained effort to transform and localize the office, most consultants—of all tenures—are African. With six offices across Africa—Addis Ababa, Casablanca, Johannesburg, Lagos, Luanda, and Nairobi—McKinsey is helping to propel economic development across the continent.
More important, though, are the achievements of our clients. "Perhaps our biggest contribution has been to help leading South African companies become global champions," says Safroadu "Saf" Yeboah-Amankwah, leader of our Johannesburg office. He points to our work with one publicly listed company in which a dollar invested at the start of the turnaround program was worth $500 8 years later. McKinsey consultants have also worked with government departments on everything from industrial policy to public finance, and helped to tackle urgent social issues such as strengthening public education systems and developing strategies to combat HIV/AIDS. More recently, McKinsey partnered with Malaysia's Prime Minister's Delivery Unit to help the South African government launch Operation Phakisa, a high-profile initiative to drive "big fast results" in areas such as job creation and primary healthcare.
What do the next 20 years hold? Leadership development and capability-building will remain central to our work, as the country shapes a new generation of managers, professionals, and entrepreneurs from all hues of the "rainbow nation." The McKinsey Leadership Program trains young black South African professionals in our tools, methodologies, and working approach. Some participants in the 2-year program stay on at McKinsey as consultants, but most go on to key management roles in leading companies and public institutions.
Advancing women's leadership is another priority. Lohini Moodley, one of several women partners in Johannesburg, is leading the next phase of our global Women Matter research across Africa. "We want to inspire the next generation of women leaders with the stories of the pioneers," she says. "We will draw on their experience to understand how they personally overcame cultural and other barriers, and identify ways to address those barriers more systematically."
Says Saf Yeboah-Amankwah: "Our ambition in the years ahead is to help the next wave of South African companies win on the global stage, and to work with government to achieve excellence in public education and other national priorities. At the same time, we will build a cohort of world-class leaders whose careers are accelerated by their experience at McKinsey."