Clem Sunter

Portrait of a winning nation

2010-02-17 07:50

There I was sitting in my office in December 1989 when the phone rang. "Hello, this is Sergeant Marais of the South African Police." "Yes, Sergeant Marais, what can I do for you?" "There's a prisoner who would like to talk to you." "I don't know any prisoners." "You know this one." "Really?" "Nelson Mandela." "You're kidding." "No I'm not." "When would he like to see me?" "Anytime."

So off I went to Victor Vester in early January 1990. After entering the prison grounds, I was led to a cottage and, there on the doorstep, was the great man with a big smile on his face. He was much slimmer than I imagined from an old boxing photograph. He ushered me in and we spent the morning talking about the global economy and the prospects for South Africa.

After that, he kindly asked me to stay to lunch and I was on my way in the early afternoon. He gave me no indication that he was going to be released in the following month. Nevertheless, what really interested me was that he wanted to talk about the future and not in any way about the past. Specifically, how could South Africa become a winning nation in a global game that was becoming increasingly competitive? He even quoted Deng to me: "I don't care if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice."

I was reminded of the visit when I recently saw the movie Invictus about his release and subsequent support for the Springbok rugby team, culminating in their famous victory in the World Cup. While some of the rugby scenes were fairly rudimentary, Clint Eastwood who directed the movie hit the nail on the head with his theme of reconciliation. You don't win critical rugby matches without a positive team dynamic and you don't move up the Premier League of nations without social harmony among the citizens of the country.

Winning nations and winning rugby teams share a lot in common. Besides the patriotism and camaraderie, the individuals making up the team must be chosen for the skills set that is appropriate for each position in the side. Education and training are critical for victory as well as hard work. Knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses, and the strategy, of your competitors is a prime requirement too. Moreover, the stadium and other infrastructure need to be in excellent condition. Above all, the leadership must understand that if any action undermines the competitiveness of the team, then the fortunes of the entire team are put at a disadvantage as well.

Spelt out in simple terms, a better life for all in South Africa presupposes that we improve our national economic ranking in the world at large. The bickering and finger-pointing have to stop and we must focus on raising the overall quality of our game. We have plenty of pockets of excellence in all sectors of South African society to provide inspirational examples. The last thing we should do is dumb them down. Celebrate excellence. Don't tolerate mediocrity. That is if you want to catch a lot of mice.

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