Attention ANC: we are a serious country with serious potential

The national testament the SA Institute of Race Relations sets out above is very different to the narrative about South Africa.

Across a range of factors, it reveals the democratic dividend.

The economy has grown significantly; a social safety net has been knitted to catch 14 million people apartheid was blind to. In 1994, 71 people were murdered every day.

It’s still too high at 44 people, but you’d never say from how we talk about ourselves that fewer people die violently every day now.

Look particularly at the impact on poverty. The mortality of under-fives is down and electricity use is way up. Extreme levels of poverty are down.

The narrative of dysfunction that is still dominant in descriptions of South Africa are entirely misplaced and, personally, nauseating. It is also deeply self-serving.

We have this odd situation in South Africa where black people who have made the biggest gains from the end of apartheid – new middle-class people like you and I – are, bizarrely, the most invested in pretending that nothing has changed.

I don’t get it. If you look at the numbers, the black proportion of the total management corps is 26%, up from 4% in 1994.

It’s not the proportion it should be at, but that is significant progress.

Numbers on wealth ownership across a range of measures (assets, property, pension fund ownership) reveal the same thing, but if you sit at a table of black professionals you would swear nothing has changed.

If you sit at a table of largely white professionals, you would swear the country is headed up shit creek without a paddle. Both groups are saying nothing has changed or that things are worse.

Both are wrong.

Neither narrative is fair nor borne out by the facts set out above. It is a national psyche we should excise or we will fail to take a place that could be ours in a new world that is being radically reshaped.

What got me thinking about this is the recent parroting of the view that South Africa does not quite belong in the Brazil, India, China conurbation of new power arranged as Brics.

We are the “s” and Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill, who coined the term, has been getting a lot of air play for his view that we don’t quite belong.

Of course, as the guy who christened Brics and has tracked new wealth patterns anatomically, what he says is interesting. It’s less interesting given where Goldman Sachs finds itself on the moral index, but that’s a point to score another day.
What has stood out is that his view has been allowed to become the dominant narrative in South Africa about Brics.

Instead, why is the major view not that we must make every bit of economic and political mileage out of our new club membership?

In the new world, belonging to Brics is more important than winning a seat at the Security Council.

Yet allowing O’Neill’s view (and that of others like him) to be victor in our country suggests to me that we are still largely Western-centric in how we think of our role in the world.

While we splurge hundreds of millions of rands on things called Brand South Africa and the International Marketing Council, they have largely failed to ingrain a different identity.

We need constant foreign validation and so quickly accept foreign invalidation. Go to India and China and see how such a thing never happens, though the challenges of each country are almost identical to ours.

It is like we still have a national inferiority complex, courtesy of apartheid.

I’d argue it’s because we are living our lives by incorrect narratives about the national picture, which I hope I’ve set out above.

And it may also be because we are a nation notoriously hard on ourselves. We protest quickly and speak up loudly. But, this is a good thing and the biggest insurance of political stability.

We debate loudly and proudly on everything from the electronic tolling of our highways, to what to do with the rhinos, to whether it’s right or wrong to call compatriots “refugees”.

I love it and I guess you do too, but ask a foreign ratings agency about it and their bright mandarins will interpret the cacophony as presaging instability.

It’s nonsense and only Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has had the guts to stand up to say so to yesterday’s validators – ratings agencies have been proven to be straw men.

Of course, the governing ANC, run as it is now by an army of mediocrity, does not help.

This week’s fights in the ANC were a political comedy of epic proportion. Three press conferences. One day. One party.

Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s response to the measured critique of Reuel Khoza, a megathinker, was cringeworthy.

It would be funny if this were Bhutan or a tiny island state. It’s not.

We’re a serious country full of serious potential.

The ANC has done a decent job until now. It’s a pity the party is not under the kind of wise leadership present at our birth in 1994.
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