Mel Clark - Knowing what drives people, their histories, their needs, their capacities, is more powerful in making change than mere technical knowledge


Executive Director of the Black Balance Projects

MEL CLARK's involvement in the trade union movement, which has shaped much of his career, began as a student on the university campuses of Universities of Cape Town and Durban Westville, where he studied sociology and law.

He says, "From the hectic days of the liberation struggle on the campuses where I studied, I was drawn to involvement in the trade union movement, being somewhat in awe of how workers without much formal education were able to show strategic and organisational skills, courage and capacity to take on powerful employers and shift the balance of power in many ways."

This involvement resulted in Clark being employed in the SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union as an organiser in Durban South in 1991 and later as Education Officer.

He thereafter spent some time as a researcher at the Trade Union Research Project at UKZN, before being employed by the newly formed KZN Regional Economic Council (a form of provincial NEDLAC) and in 1998 was appointed its CEO.

In 2001 Clark was appointed Head of the KZN Department of Economic Affairs and Tourism. He said, "This was a huge honour and a challenge for me; there was a tangible sense amongst us of having to draft, test and implement economic plans, which sought to both grow and transform the racially defined economy at the same time."

Clark said that he became accustomed to working in a context of political uncertainty. During his time as HOD he worked with four different Members of the Executive Council. Clark commented, "Fortunately those of us who came into Government from the trade union movement had been schooled in economic analysis and being resilient - hard work was the norm."

The importance of having a strong, skilled and stable management and administrative team in a public sector institution, which is not overly dependent on the personality of the political leader of the institution, became clear to him during this time, and proved to be a valuable lesson for private sector entrepreneurship later as well.

After leaving the Department, Clark was appointed to setup of the KZN Growth Fund, which is now able to make a significant difference in project finance in the Province.

In 2007, Clark moved into the private sector and established Black Balance Projects with his business partner, Malcolm Biggar. Their goal was to integrate their economics and engineering skills to offer something different in the consulting market.

"We soon built a team of young black professionals, which is now 50 people strong. We have been able to build new links, strategies and practical project plans, which brings various built environment disciplines working together around how to stimulate economic growth and transformation at local level through catalytic infrastructural and economic projects."

Clark said, "It's a work-in-progress, as we all are, but its something of which I am proud. We have built a company which, although relatively small, is able to offer innovative solutions that try to be true to the developmental challenges of balancing growth, sustainability and transformation."

Sustainability, commented Clark, is really the company's core business. "We design housing settlements, hard infrastructure plans, and rural economic plans....all of these require a commitment to sustainability. Sustainability demands innovation - thinking out of the box - challenging old beliefs. We believe that sustainability in SA demands innovative ways to connect people and trust them to find new ways to live, work and play together without old-style walls and divisions."

He added that in order to promote innovation one also needs to understand people, both as individuals and as collectives, which is key to problem solving. "My experience is that knowing what drives people, their histories, their needs, their capacities, is more powerful in making change than mere technical knowledge. So I have always valued people and relationships and sought to invest in those, and believe that success should be measured in those terms rather than financially."

Clark believes that in every person there is passion and capacity and that it is his role as leader to help people see and act on what may be blocking them from unleashing that potential. He says, "I am a believer in the notion of leadership growing from the inside rather than being taught - that the more you work to know yourself, the more likely you are to understand others. And leading others becomes an organic emergent way of being, rather than a list of things to do."

In reflecting on his professional journey, Clark says that the formulation of KZN's Provincial Growth and Development Strategies, from 1995 up to now, stands out as highlight for him. "I have been involved in those processes over all these years, first as a Labour representative, then as a Government leader, and then as a consultant."

Going forward Clark is hopeful to play a value-adding role in building more effective and sustainable partnerships between the public and the private sectors, especially in KZN. He said, "We achieved a much harder goal in KZN - that of building peace - yet economic freedom eludes most of us - I think more pervasive partnerships are key to addressing that."

Clark concluded, "For me challenges relate to finding balance between my personal and professional life. I find that one needs to constantly grow a mindfulness in making choices that keep rebalancing these two very important parts of who I am. I am a family man at heart - and my three boys are a happy handful for me. Outside of that I have the great misfortune of having been bitten by the golfbug for many years, so I try to get out to play every so often and follow the PGA Tours quite avidly - awaiting Tiger's great comeback!"

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