Walking around and talking to people at the SA Tourism-hosted annual Meetings Africa event in Sandton, one could easily forget all the usual noises that make many of us feel like a defeated nation and focus instead on the things that work.
The Sandton Convention Centre, where this event is held, suddenly feels like Noah’s Ark, a safe place to be - far from the madding political talks ahead of the 2019 elections; a place where our world of possibilities becomes real.
SA still beats the odds
As an organisation, SA Tourism, under Sisa Ntshona, its CEO, is doing great work for South Africa. The man is a rare bastion of energy for this country; his focus is to always remind the world that South Africa is still a country to be reckoned with, and that the warmth of its people remains unmatched, despite the odds that often seem stacked against us.
He is so convincing when he talks about South Africa that he could possibly say it as well in his sleep, or even when he had to do so without being paid. South Africa’s civil service needs more people like Ntshona. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s probably because he hasn’t done anything to attract the wrong kind of media interest to himself.
He must keep things that way.
Business tourism is a vast sector that covers conferences, meetings, events, incentives and the broader hospitality sector. It generates billions of rands every year, and has the potential to generate a lot more if we get our collective act together as a nation.
The ripple effects of its injection into the economy also reach far and wide. It needs the focused political buy-in it currently enjoys in Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, a darling of the tourism fraternity in South Africa. Yet a lot more can be done.
Ease of doing business
In an SABC2 televised interview on day two of the three-day event, a professional meetings organiser from Tanzania mentioned Rwanda as the number two destination for conferences and meetings in Africa. It was far behind but is already taking on South Africa, which dominated the market for many decades.
With a business operating in her home country, Tanzania, as well as Rwanda, she only had good things to say about the ease with which the government of Rwanda has taken to supporting business tourism, especially in so far as it concerns Visa applications and the issuing thereof; safety, cleanliness, the modernisation of infrastructure and other incentives to support local businesses and to attract global business tourism. She described Meetings Africa as the place to always be for the quality of products, buyers and the industry know-how that is gained during the event.
Now, if you ask Ntshona if Rwanda worries him, he’ll probably tell you that it doesn’t at all. He’ll add that it is actually a good thing that other African countries are also beginning to benefit from business tourism, for all the good and known reasons: economic development, poverty alleviation, job creation and the general integration of Africa into this lucrative global industry. Depending on how one reads him, he’d be right and wrong at the same time.
My own guess is that if you asked the same question of Ntshona’s counterpart in Kigali or elsewhere in Africa, where more infrastructure is being built in order to take South Africa head-on - in this sector - they’d tell you that they’re happy to be taking some of the business that either used to go uniquely to South Africa or that could otherwise go to South Africa. They’d probably even warn South Africa to watch out; that Rwanda and other African countries are irreversibly in the game.
So Ntshona would be right for all the reasons mentioned above, but he’d be wrong not to be worried.
Following a decade of bad leadership at political level, the much-publicised state capture and other forms of corruption, South Africa’s country brand image has taken a lot of direct hits to the head. Its reputation remains weakened in some places and easily raises questions it never used to raise.
It might be tempting to veer as far as possible from a frank discussion on the negative impact of criminal political leadership on a country brand, but it is a discussion that we must have, frankly and with the aim to look into our collective mirror and acknowledge what we see.
Without this, we shall forever remain in denial about what really afflicts us and wonder why increasing numbers of business opportunities that used to come to us, and that we probably took for granted, now head to places like Rwanda.
We must have these frank conversations about the current reputational state of South Africa, especially because many in the world of investors and business tourism are waiting for the political dust to settle. The pre-electoral cacophony is not helping much, because presidential contenders seem to be saying just about anything without meaning much, just to grab the headlines and woo undecided voters.
When the dust settles, after the elections, South Africa will need to ensure that the right people – those with the interests of the country in mind, instead of personal agendas – get employed by organisations like Brand SA, and others who promote this country to work hand-in-hand with the likes of Sisa Ntshona and good private sector initiatives, instead of trying to kill them out of jealousy. They will need to guide politicians to think carefully before they come up with policies such as those implemented by Home Affairs under Malusi Gigaba, seemingly without prior consultation with key stakeholders in tourism.
Sing from one song sheet
Everything is linked. The National Development Plan, if it remains the one that speaks to the ever-changing dynamics of the times we live in, or if a newer version of it if it becomes necessary, must be the only hymn book we rally around, from government to the private sector, in order to reclaim our place in the list of preferred global destinations for people and things that bring much-needed foreign exchange into our economy.
Without any of this, our dream to create a truly inclusive economy where more will enjoy a sunny place under the South African sun will remain a pipe dream.