The ongoing avalanche of wrong unfolding in South Africa makes it hard to know where to begin a coherent discussion. It has begun to feel like we’re holding an increasingly porous bucket of water, foolishly trying the same tired methods - over and over again - and hoping for a different outcome: that our bucket will fill up this time.
We’re in denial; that is what we are.
The problem can be defined in three words: 'lack of leadership'. Let me start right off the bat with a reminder to those whose attention might have been elsewhere for the last hellish week-or-three: an unprecedented Stage 6 load shedding, SAA in business rescue, and Prasa finally under administration.
Put mildly, all of this constitutes a real, tangible reminder of the long-term work that SA has cut out for it, as well as the long and scary road ahead for us.
It’s also a reminder of how little we actually know about what is happening at Eskom, in particular, which is really the life support system of our economy.
And which, it seems, needs to be on a life support system of its own!
Allow me to rewind for a moment. As the years go by – and SA faces fresh struggles on what feels like a weekly basis – many South Africans, especially the so-called 'Born Frees', seem to be oblivious to the tense political climate that reigned in the country, just before and during the historic multi-party negotiations that, we should never forget, played a big role in pulling South Africa back from the brink of a sure civil war.
They also do not seem to know that prior to the onset of negotiations, the various parties were in a serious stalemate.
Although some argue that the National Party could have held on to fast-eroding political legitimacy and dragged the situation out for another 15 years or so, the truth is that economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa had begun to bite hard, bringing the country’s economy to its knees. Government coffers were fast emptying up; something had to give.
The various liberation movements, with the ANC seen as the most representative, by far, of the oppressed masses, had also run out of options.
They had, on the one hand, to choose between forever fighting the well-armed SA Defence Force and on occasion targeting civilians around the country – and, on the other hand, accepting the pragmatism of a negotiated settlement; all with very little prospect, if any, of winning a conventional war.*
Now, it seems contemporary South Africa again finds itself at a point where a new beginning is needed, and where the time for denial is over.
Must we keep going in the same direction, with the same tired methods, at the expense of our ailing economy, or must we call for a fresh start with new ideas and a different team?
We’re together in this messy marriage
The aging South Africans who actively participated as party representatives in the negotiations, or those who were adult enough to remember the climate at the time, have a historic responsibility to speak out against those who seem to believe the ANC could have walked away from the negotiations with everything on its wish list.
No one single party could do that, because there was simply no room for winner-takes-all. And there is still no room for winner-takes-all in contemporary South Africa, despite appearances. Were anyone to be foolish enough to attempt taking everything at the expense of everyone else, South Africa would suffer a lot more that it is already suffering. The economic nosedive would make Zimbabwe seem like a bad dress rehearsal.
South Africa’s economy is already on its knees, begging to be rescued, and it will not stand up again until sanity returns and prevails. If those in power insist on holding on at all cost and going ahead with failed policies that will only appease labour unions and extreme left-wingers who behave as if the world owes them something, all at the expense of our country and despite all the evidence of structural failures, we’re all doomed.
We all pay the price for an avalanche of policy failures, especially small to medium enterprises - known all over the world to be the most important creators of employment.
When Eskom fails, SMEs will be the first go down with it; our already high unemployment rates will shoot right through the roof; risks of social unrest will rise, and South Africa will find itself in a place none of us wish for.
It is not helping that none of the other key SOEs are in significantly better financial and operational health, either.
Solutions for the ills that have befallen our beloved country can never be found through emotion. They lie in balanced, calculated, and rational thinking, as well as a pragmatic acceptance that this country was built by the sweat of many. The future lies in our finding our path back to the route of unity in diversity, however this may challenge our comfort zones.
Embrace our industrial heritage
And there is a future, if we seize it. SA is Africa's most industrialised country, built on the basis of – or with the domination of – indigenous African savoir faire. Many others around the continent envy what we have and what we take for granted, here in South Africa: the modern infrastructure, complex tarred road system that serves as an essential nerve system for our economy, the sophisticated banking system; nuclear and other energy sector facilities, the mines, the railway network, and a whole lot more.
Sadly, apartheid made it nearly impossible for requisite skill sets to be developed throughout the entire population of the country and deployed without racial prejudice. But despite the many failures of today, much progress has been made over the past 25 years to grow critical skills in areas hitherto inaccessible for Black South Africans in particular.
Still, this is not enough. We cannot afford to repeat the errors of the past by holding on to policies that racially exclude a portion of the population, when our country needs all hands on deck to achieve renewal. To remain a major economic force in Africa and the world, South Africa must embrace and count on what makes it unique in Africa – the rich diversity of all its people: Black, Coloured, Indian and White, and get them to work together to build for the future.
Pull together - there's still time
While it is not surprising, it is nevertheless sad to note that the more the economy tanks, the more we’re caught in a vicious cycle of increasing racial tensions which, in turn, have a negative effect on domestic and international investor confidence levels. As such resultant finger-pointing and political tensions rise, economic stability decreases and any chance of recovery shifts further away. Our leaders, sadly, are failing here as well.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves: no progress will be realised in the absence of healthy doses of goodwill and confidence here at home, first and foremost, that those who lead are determined to cast racial irrationality aside and in favour of building an inclusive home for all. And it will not happen in an environment where more negative news keeps coming out about the extent of the financial and governance rot that has resulted, in part, from politically driven deployments of ill-suited wrecking balls into positions of trust that required specialised skills and experience; skills and experience excluded because they come in the wrong skin colour.
History is being repeated to the detriment of a country with enormous, yet unrealised potential. Only rational, balanced, emotionally intelligent leadership will save South Africa. A new 'Thuma Mina' is needed – but one that is not driven for party political expediency. It must be a call that aims to rally all needed South African skills, experience, and expertise around a shared ideal of building and positioning a strong country brand that will be admired in Africa and around the world.
Too much is at stake to let failed policies and, pride, and stubbornness stand in the way of the potential that South Africa holds.
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.
* Recommended read: Secret Revolution; Memoirs of a Spy Boss by Niel Barnard/ Tobie Wiese.