JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - If President Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation" is to succeed, it will depend on people like Jocelyn Bell.
Ms. Bell is senior manager-research director for New Africa Advisors (Pty) Ltd., the Johannesburg-based office for the minority-owned money manager that is wholly owned by Sloan Financial Group Inc., Durham, N.C.
New Africa Advisors invests some $250 million for U.S. institutional and retail investors in public and private African equities.
"Mrs. Bell" - as she answers the phone - at first appears a prim and proper woman in her mid-60s, but quickly evinces a sly sense of humor and a sharp analytical mind.
A white woman, she was the first South African employee of New Africa Advisors. Retired in 1990 as chief economist at Gold Fields of South Africa, a gold-mining firm in Marshalltown, she responded in 1992 to an advertisement for an economic consultant to the newly formed money management firm.
Informed that it was a black-owned American firm, Ms. Bell - whose family moved to South Africa from Canada when she was 8 - replied: "So what?"
Following Mr. Mandela's election victory two years later, the firm made its solidified its commitment to South Africa and hired Mrs. Bell as the firm's first South African employee.
"I have a very great difficulty in noticing whether people are black or white when they are talking on my level," she explained.
Justin Beckett, president of New Africa Advisors, concurs: "She's completely oblivious. She's one of the stalwarts of the charitable community," chairing the firm's scholarship committee.
In the mid-1980s, she tutored a young black woman who university authorities said couldn't cut the ice. With Ms. Bell's encouragement, the young woman took a job as a secretary - but took correspondence courses to earn her degree. That woman now is secretary-general of South Africa's Northern Province.
It's that type of attitude that might help South Africa shed its racist history and take advantage of the enormous resources at its disposal.
Ms. Bell explained: "I was fortunate in going to school at a time when we were preparing for the new South Africa." She said she never fell for the Nationalist Party line, and tried to imbue her children with her beliefs.
But she didn't expect it to take nearly 50 years for the new South Africa to emerge.
All the same, she has seen enormous changes take place in South Africa. "When I started work, the only black people you saw in a working environment were 'tea boys'*" - who could be 65 years old - "or the cleaner." Black women were completely excluded from office work.
By the early 1970s, that was starting to change. Insurance companies started to take on young black employees - but for the wrong reasons. "They offered such low salaries, that whites were unwilling to work for those salaries," Ms. Bell said.
"It was quite a sea change, and it happened in spite of apartheid."
Blazing a trail
Ms. Bell herself had to blaze a trail in South Africa - as a woman. In a number of instances, she was the first woman to take jobs in tough work situations where successors didn't seem to last.
Majoring in economics and psychology, she first took a job in 1952 as a statistical clerk doing economic research at the Chamber of Mines, the politically powerful trade association.
After 12 years, she quit to start a family.
But tragedy struck eight years later when she was a passenger in an auto accident in which her husband died. Ms. Bell experienced extensive injuries herself.
She spent a month in the hospital - only half the time her doctors had expected. "I was the pride and joy of the General Hospital," she said.
However, she suddenly was without her husband's income and had two young children and a handicapped brother to care for. She had to go back to work.
She took an offer as a trainee investment analyst with Sun Life of Canada, which subsequently was acquired by Johannesburg-based Liberty Life Association of Africa Ltd.
Ms. Bell worked under the tutelage of founder and Chairman Donald Gordon, but left to join mining concern JCI Holdings as an investment analyst in 1975, eventually becoming a foreign exchange dealer.
While working at JCI, she decided to pursue post-graduate work, nearly 30 years after earning her bachelors degree. She picked up an honors degree and a masters in economics, eventually joining JCI's economics department.
In 1984, she left to become chief economist at a local brokerage firm, joining Gold Fields in fall 1986. But Gold Fields employed a "mechanistic" approach to forecasting future industry trends, Ms. Bell said. Since the time of the Old Testament, there has been only one prophet who has been able to forecast the future accurately, she said: Nostradamus.
Impressions part of forecasts
With a small degree of immodesty, Ms. Bell said her forecasts have been better than average.
She relies on her personal impressions, as well as statistics. When she sees that all the cars around are very new, she knows there's a boost to the economy taking place, even if it is not reflected in the data.
Data in South Africa is a nebulous thing. In a country where population estimates were made by flying overhead to count the number of huts, official figures place unemployment at 29%. South African Reserve Bank officials say the size of the underground economy suggests the real figure is closer to 20%, but some observers peg unemployment closer to 40%.
Ms. Bell agrees with the Reserve Bank estimates, saying there would be total chaos if the unemployment rate were 40%. But things are looking up: she believes the economy will grow at a 2% clip this year and 3% next year.
Now, South Africa is at a make or break point, she said. "I think it's very much a critical juncture. The challenges are immense because there are comparably few educated black people. Too many of them have gone into politics when they are actually needed in business," she explained.
Meanwhile, there are too few capable blacks in business. Eventually there "will have to be a shakeout," Ms. Bell added. "It's a major, major problem."
All the same, Ms. Bell holds out hope for South Africa's future. "At the moment, there is a huge amount of racialism," while negative remarks made by one race about the other are instantly viewed as racist.
"We have to grow out of that," she said.
Still, South Africa is in a better position than other countries. "We don't have half the problems as the States because we like each other," she said.
Added Mr. Beckett: "If there's ever a place where things are not black and white, it's this country."
Recollecting the joyous celebration when Nelson Mandela was elected president, she recalled seeing one protester holding a burning poster of former President F.W. de Klerk.
He was ignored, so he threw aside his poster and joined in the party.
"We do love each other," Ms. Bell added. "I don't know how to say it any other way."