Some countries are the backdrop of global conversation, and every year at annual statistics-gathering periods, they methodically peep through the door, present themselves, and go back to their serene and orderly way of life. South Africa on the other hand, at age 22 since democracy, is centre stage, providing an endless flow of unintelligible dramas for its citizens and the world. Impressively though, as a brand, the country holds its own despite its very many hits and misses, and what’s definitely a convoluted state of affairs. Yet, however intricately twisted and coiled the situation may be, every night the beautiful landscape of mountains and seas, world-class infrastructure, e-toll gantried highways, semi-burnt universities, shisa nyamas, taxi ranks, high suburban walls and taverns all go to sleep in preparation for another day, with protests, corruption, house robberies, rape, murder, cabinet reshuffles, imbizos, court cases and racial injustices overshadowing any good news stories. This is just how the cookie crumbles (/ it plays out) in South Africa.
According to Khanyisile Kweyama, Chairperson: Board of Trustees, Brand South Africa, in its annual report 2015/2016: they have “redoubled efforts domestically to instil pride and patriotism among South Africans through promoting active citizenship, while identifying and implementing creative measures to ameliorate situations that threaten the country’s social cohesion and the Nation Brand.”
The question is: Is this one organisation’s job? And if so, “ameliorating”, that is improving, the situation and “instilling pride and patriotism” seems easier said than done. This country dances to its own tune and the choices are to join in, sit on the sidelines or, like some South Africans, seek shelter and peace of mind in “better behaved” countries.
Those who do stay and waffle through the parts of the national anthem that aren’t their native language, have awkward conversations at grocery queues because they feel obliged to (in spite of coming very close to killing each other in road rage every morning, and dancing in the same circle at end-year parties), subscribe to a common hope and belief that one day South Africa will get it right – an unstructured patriotism that just comes naturally to South Africans.
Lebogang Nkoane, a Johannesburg-based computer scientist and Play Your Part ambassador, reckons well-considered patriotism is good. “We’re patriotic, and to some extent, arrogantly so. The arrogance doesn't help the South African brand in that our African neighbours don’t appreciate the way we tend portray their countries. So although patriotism can be good, I draw the line when it starts sounding like ‘a nationalist agenda’ which becomes the fuel to justify and qualify xenophobia, for example. I’d say it’s great to be proudly South African but it would benefit us more to be proudly Pan Africanist.”
It’s been said that whatever you focus on expands. If South Africa focuses on what we’re getting right, could we possibly change our country’s reputation?
Not surprisingly, our national outlook manages to rub fellow Africans up the wrong way by us doing silly things like referring to taking “trips into Africa” when travelling outside of the country on the continent. This of course incenses other Africans but the truth is, this mostly unintentionally offensive South African tendency stems from South Africans still trying to figure themselves out, and in so doing, cosmopolitan cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town (much like New York City, Paris and London) form part of global spaces occupied by many different nationalities and cannot be owned by natives alone.
Another blight the nation has is the detrimental mistakes that have been made with the economy. Stunts like switching finance ministers over a weekend have ruffled investor feathers and seen the rand see-saw like never before, and the snail-like Gross Domestic Product growth rate continues to be a handicap for the country. The economy advanced an annualised 3.3 percent on quarter in the three months to June of 2016, recovering from a 1.2 percent contraction in the previous period and beating market expectations of a 2.3 percent increase. This is the highest growth rate since the last three months of 2014, mainly boosted by manufacturing, mining and real estate activities. But if South Africa continues to rely on multinationals and established industries to conduct its business of looking attractive to investors and reducing the unemployment rate, it will fail. This is why it’s the small population of people who are hands-down heroes of this highly acclaimed performance – the entrepreneurs of South Africa – who are the true darlings of the nation.
Unfortunately, the notion that Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) can play an important role in the economy and can be key drivers of economic growth, innovation and job creation is just that, a notion, what with so many odds stacked up against them. And as a result, South Africa suffers from a constant stutter that regurgitates the same names in a Google search for successful entrepreneurs: Elon Musk (who doesn’t even live here), Mark Shuttleworth, Patrice Motsepe, Anton Rupert, Raymond Ackerman, Sol Kerzner, Khanyi Dhlomo, etcetera, etcetera. And while most of them are wonderful, it’s a new breed of change makers and innovative thinkers who are making things happen and finding solutions to some of the country’s biggest problems, thereby creating much-needed jobs, albeit it one job at a time. With some strategic support, they should occupy the top spots in Google searches in ten years’ time.
People such as Ludwick Marishane, founder of Headboy Industries and developer of DryBath, a gel that does all the work of a bath without water; Julie Alexander Fourie, founder of iFix that has 31 stores across the country; Miles Kubheka who, with an idea from a TV beer advert, started a real business by opening two (and counting) Vuyo’s restaurants; Vuyiswa Mutshekwane, a serial entrepreneur and strategist who co-founded Joburg’s first and popular inner-city brunch events, The WKND Social; and Luvuyo and Lonwabo Rani, co-founders of Silulo Ulutho Technologies – a company equipping youth and adults in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces with much-needed computer skills. To the list include Dudu and Leema Mofokeng, joint owners of Pretoria-based Legaci Dry Cleaners and Laundry Services; Sharanjeet Shan, founder of Maths Centre, a non-profit organisation that strives to improve Maths, Science and Technology Education in South Africa; Siyabonga Majozi and Futhi Maluleka, owners of Durban-based Zorka Social lounge, which specialises in traditional, seafood and shisa nyama dishes.
In the tech space, the highly contested spot to become South Africa’s version of Silicon Valley has created healthy competition between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Silicon Cape is a local high-tech innovation hub based on the international concept of Silicon Valley aimed at attracting top technical talent and entrepreneurs to the Western Cape, ultimately creating an environment for local IT and tech companies to compete with similar hubs around the world. Braamfontein in Johannesburg is also fixing to become the Silicon Valley of the nation with the launch of Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation precinct, set up to address unemployment, growth and entrepreneurship – the hub will be a digital and technology incubator for start-ups and will help to commercialise the results of local research.
Janine Hills, founder and CEO of Vuma Reputation Management – a successful company she started from scratch in South Africa eleven years ago – and board member of Brand South Africa, has learnt to embrace South Africa’s idiosyncrasies. “As South Africans we tend to be unaware of how negatively we speak about our nation and that what one speaks about becomes a reality. When one sees the challenges internationally, we truly can begin to understand how much we have grown as a nation and how much we have overcome together. It’s important for us to put things into perspective when analysing the positive and negative of our country. It’s important to ensure that we have the mindset to consider all points of view. As a nation we’re great storytellers with a deep heritage,” she says.
So even while the Penny Sparrows spread their toxic thinking, their role is important too, as they remind us of the small things that each and every citizen can do to move the country forward… Learn a language, help someone in need, teach someone to dance like Shekinah, become a great export like Trevor Noah, Pearl Thusi and Nadia Neophytou. Use whatever platform you can for positive reinforcement, like Talk Radio 702’s John Robbie who listeners love to hate, but has taken on the unpaid duty of promoting South Africa’s tourist attractions on his show. Wave at the guy who wants to help you park at the shopping mall (even if you don’t tip him), buy local products and services, learn more about the continent and fellow Africans, smile and for goodness sake, learn the national anthem!