OPINION: Changing the narrative of the 'new dawn' and corruption in South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Though understandable, the constant discussion about South Africa's problems risks cementing an image of South Africa as perhaps one of the most corrupt countries in the world, writes Thembinkosi Gcoyi.

The emergence of the "new dawn" in December 2017 was supposed to be the panacea to South Africa's growing economic and social problems. Billed as a new beginning for the country, its disciples hoped that the narrative of a new dawn would communicate once and for all that South Africa has turned a corner.

No greater action could signify the change in direction than the recall of former president Jacob Zuma in February 2018. This event was billed as the killer move in a pincer movement designed to squeeze out the bad elements and put South Africa on a firm path to recovery. It was also the move that was designed to signal to South Africans and the international community that President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team would deal a decisive blow to corruption, maladministration and the general rot that had afflicted South African institutions.

The president took decisive steps to root out corruption by instituting commissions of inquiry to investigate wide ranging allegations of corruption and maladministration across the South African state. These include the Zondo commission, the SARS inquiry, the PIC inquiry and the Mokgoro inquiry. He also authorised the Special Investigating Unit to perform investigations into corrupt activities of state-owned entities and a number of municipalities.

All of these were decisions not only to deal with corruption, but to also assure South Africans, investors, ratings agencies and the broader international community about the business unusual approach of the new government.

Perhaps in a moment of triumphalism, Ramaphosa declared the nine years under Zuma the "wasted years". The jury is out on whether this is a fair categorisation of that period, though a lot of wrong did happen. In subsequent speeches, the president has continued to drive home the message about the level of rot in South African institutions and extolled the virtues of his team to bring a change to this state of affairs. He has also worked diligently to assure investors that the South Africa he is in charge of is a different place to that run by his predecessor. Herein lies the difficulty of messaging.

Though entirely understandable, in a sense the president and his team have cornered the country into a problem of credibility with their endless talk of corruption in the country. Conducting a podcast interview with the CEO of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Alan Mukoki, he made the point that the new dawn leadership may be overstepping the mark in their quest to distance the 6th democratic administration from the bad decisions of the past – a past which President Ramaphosa was an integral member of.

Though understandable, the constant discussion about South Africa's problems risks cementing an image of South Africa as perhaps one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This may even be true. However, it hardly gives confidence to investors and the broader international community when leaders tailor their messaging around the maladies of their countries, rather than focusing more of their efforts towards extolling the opportunities that the economy offers.

The truth, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2018, is that South Africa is not counted amongst the most corrupt countries in the world. Certainly, its ranking of 73/180 is highly problematic. However, this is a better outcome than its Brics peers, with Brazil (105), Russia (138), India (78) and China (87). 

Outside Brics, the country still compares favourably to Turkey (78), Argentina (85) and Ethiopia (114). Of course, these economies are very different to one another. Other than being emerging economies, if China still deserves that moniker, these are widely different and run on differing platforms of governance. The critical thing to note is that the leaders of these countries are not using global platforms to highlight how rotten their countries are. Rather, their messaging is clearly focused on profiling opportunities for investment and highlighting key reforms taking place.

It may be time for the president and his team to cool the "South Africa is so bad" narrative. Every observer has probably gotten the message that a lot went wrong. Now is the time to focus on what is working and not what does not. Even better, the president should focus his energy on the major reforms that his government intends to embark on in the immediate future.

The current tinkering is clearly not achieving a major impact in bringing investment, reducing unemployment, reducing poverty and bridging inequality. Until this happens, South Africans will continue to wonder why the rest of the world takes a dim view of the country despite the tangible progress being achieved in turning things around.

- Thembinkosi Gcoyi is the managing director of Frontline Africa Advisory. Follow him on Twitter: @tgcoyi

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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