The 2019 South African narrative needs to change. Conversations are liberally sprinkled with corruption, crime, and gloomy political and economic outlooks as negativity permeates every business discussion and decision.
They’re right, but they lack perspective. Yes, South Africa has undergone dramatic change and faced unpleasant scandals. Every corner turned holds yet another State Capture revelation that leaves South Africans feeling betrayed and angry.
But this is not the whole picture. It is time to inject a healthy dose of realism into the conversation and change the narrative from negative to realistic.
“We need some perspective on where we are as a country,” says Miles Crisp, CEO at Tarsus Technology Group. “We are hammering ourselves about where we could have been instead of looking back at where we have come from. Less than 40 years ago we had rampant apartheid, we were insolvent as a country, interest rates were in the 20s, inflation was more than 20%, we were running two currencies, and we were operating under sanctions. The country was disheveled and in disarray.”
In the mid-1980s, the labour market was tiny, censorship was everywhere and the SABC was even more under government control than it is today. There was war in Angola and fighting in the townships – facts only exposed thanks to brave journalists and even braver citizens. And the country had not yet felt the full impact of P.W. Botha’s Rubicon speech. The South Africa of the past was dying a slow death amidst bigoted policy, war and unrest.
“Just comparing where we are today to where we were then should give anyone pause,” adds Crisp. “The people we are today, the goodwill in the country, the existing interest rates and economic shifts – what we have achieved is extraordinary.”
Roll forward to 1994. There was growth and expansion. The economy started to take off as it was finally unfettered and the world had accepted South African into its global citizenship. The future was complex, but South Africans were mostly looking ahead through rose-tinted glasses.
Then the country lost its way and, from 2008, the moral compass between right and wrong was blurred and the aftermath left the country reeling. The negative undercurrents surged forward, justifying belief that 1994 was ‘the beginning of the end’, and this was proof.
Hurt and angry
“We’re struggling with the scale of the corruption and people are hurt and angry about being bamboozled by those we chose as our leaders,” says Anton Herbst, Head of Strategy at Tarsus Technology Group and CEO of Tarsus On Demand.
“But even then there are reasons to feel good about South Africa. We live in a country with a rule of law and, even if it didn’t feel like that for a while, our courts have proven their independence.
We need to change our perspective from negative analyses of all that went wrong to a realistic look at how the wrongdoing is being uncovered, how lights are being shone on the things that have gone wrong, and how our elections are still free and fair and going ahead as planned.”
We are proactive
There is only no hope for a country if nobody understands what they are dealing with or how to deal with it. South Africans know what the challenges are and the country is making significant strides in dealing with them proactively and publicly. People are investing themselves into change and making a difference, giving back by making change a reality.
“It is time to focus on the things that do work, not the things that aren’t working,” says Crisp. “We have world class businesses, people and institutions in this country. We have seen the private sector pick up the slack where the public sector has battled and change the landscape forever. Just look to how the private sector created educational institutions that are filling in the gaps. The health sector as well – we have world class hospitals and constant innovation in this space.”
Public vs Private
There has been, traditionally, a measure of suspicion between the public and private sectors. Government holding private sector to account for its profit and money and an ongoing perception of greed. However, this is changing. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s background is influencing government and the public sector is starting to recognise the importance of working with the private sector to transform the country.
“Over the next decade, I believe that we will enter into a phase of public-private partnerships that will see all sectors of society contribute to the future of the country,” adds Crisp. “We are moving into a period where the government, NGOs and private sector will develop a deeper understanding of how they can collaborate and together shift the dynamics of South Africa.”
Understand the problems
This doesn’t mean that South Africans should embrace a Pollyanna-esque attitude that blithely ignores the challenges that lie ahead. Rather, the narrative needs to understand exactly what the problems are and how these can be addressed sustainably and intelligently.
“There is no use sitting back and pretending that we are all OK; it’s not true,” says Herbst. “We have a lot of work to do and as often as we immerse ourselves in the negative, we tend to paint pictures of how good things are. Realism means we are all working together to overcome the issues and we have a realistic view of tomorrow.”
That said, realism isn’t about abandoning the positive in favour of just carrying on blindly while hoping things change. It is about recognising that the worst may very well be in the past and that there are some good- even great – things expected in the future. The next year may not see the economy make a miraculous recovery but it will see steady growth that will make a real difference to business.
“Moving forward, we need to focus on providing people with the skills they need to become, and remain, employable in a rapidly-changing environment,” says Herbst. “The multiple layers of government, business and NGOs need to tackle the education and skills challenges as these will impact us all. Africa is a premium destination for business, South Africa is still a driving force on the continent, and we need to work together to leverage this and create opportunity.”
There are even more reasons to be positive about the country, beyond just realism and State Capture revelations and collaboration. The country has extraordinary tourism potential alongside rapidly improving infrastructure, accommodation and transportation. Few countries offer as much as South Africa does when it comes to wildlife, ecosystem, and tourism.
“Along with tourism, I am genuinely excited about what the South African youth have to offer to the country,” concludes Crisp. “Their conversations have depth, they have a level of wisdom our generation did not, and they are passionate about what they can do to change the country for the better. There are extraordinary youngsters who have a maturity, thanks to cultural norms such as “black tax“, who are setting new standards and really give me hope for our future.”
The changing landscape
The landscape is changing. Yes, there are still systemic issues, legacy problems and big challenges that have to be overcome, but they aren’t being ignored or left by the wayside.
There are initiatives in place, commitments being made and steps being taken. Turning a country around is a slow and steady process that takes time and, even though it may have lost its way for a while, things are very definitely back on track.
It is time to take a realistic look at where South Africa is today compared with yesterday and to celebrate its achievements, because there have been many, and even more lie ahead.