South Africa, like all other countries, sends messages to the rest of the world all the time.
Some of these messages are intended, through all forms of country promotional campaigns, to attract tourists and investors. Others are not intended to be sent out there.
But they find their way out there, nonetheless, thanks to social media – and the omnipresence of the modern-day ‘Big Brother’ through other forms of digital media. Often, the unintended messages are the ones with the most potential to undermine the intent of government propaganda, other promotional messages and, consequently, harm the country’s image.
When this happens, all the public money spent in expensive global promotional campaigns turns to the Biblical seed thrown on barren soil. It becomes wasteful expenditure.
South Africa is also a brand – one in competition with many others for foreign direct investments, tourism, and a drive to attract wealthy foreign students, etc.
It is reasonable to imagine that SA would also like to be considered an attractive, stable, reliable and safe host country for regional headquarters of global corporations or their labour-intensive manufacturing arms, as well as other multilateral organisations who would, in turn, send their highly skilled and paid employees and their families to live here – by default contributing to the country’s development.
There is a lot of prestige that comes with realising any of these benefits: potential for skills development; small business development; accelerated integration of the country into the fourth industrial revolution; the development of new, cleaner sources of energy for the future, etc.
If achieved, all of this would help the country build a stable, growing economy that, if ethically managed by competent people with a clear vision, would be the answer we seek to eventually creating an inclusive economy that would help us push back the potential for unwanted social unrest.
If, on the other hand, none of these benefits come to South Africa, we can be sure they will go elsewhere, to a better prepared country. The world doesn’t owe South Africa anything. Rwanda, for instance, is increasingly viewed as a go-to country in Africa for all sorts of exciting reasons, notwithstanding the refusal of its president to leave office. (That is a discussion for another column.)
In April, President Cyril Ramaphosa joined other leaders at the Commonwealth Gathering in London, England. This was soon after he became president, amid much fanfare, especially in South Africa, with former president Jacob Zuma’s anointed candidate having lost the party election. It had been widely feared at the time that had she won the contest, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would have become, by remote control, an extension of her former husband’s control of the economic and political direction of our country’s fortunes, despite its key institutions having been massively weakened and repurposed under his leadership to serve only those close to him.
When Ramaphosa’s turn came to address the gathered leaders of the Commonwealth, he paid homage to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.
Armed with fond memories of Mandela’s leadership ethics and style, many were excited to hear Ramaphosa make that promise. We did not bother to ask him to explain what he really meant – there seemed no need. We simply assumed he meant what we hoped he meant: that was good enough.
For a short time, we chose to focus on the beauty of the message we had been so hungry to hear, rather than the deteriorated socio-political and economic environment in SA.
Thuma Mina: Another dream deferred?
Fast-forward several weeks, and realpolitik is looking us in the face. Indications are that the Zuma-influenced arm of the ANC in Kwazulu-Natal has found a way to politically blackmail the ‘Thuma Mina’ administration into agreeing on a number of concessions (the potentially worrisome details of which we are yet to see) if the ANC is to stand any chance of retaining power following the 2019 elections. And Julius Malema’s EFF, despite seeming to be running in all directions in search for lasting reasons to remain relevant, has become like a bulldog holding onto several bones the ANC desperately wants for itself, particularly the politically juicy ‘expropriation without compensation’ issue.
Both the EFF and the ANC saw how one Robert Gabriel Mugabe, across the northern border of our country, used the highly emotive land issue as a tool for political manipulation when his hold on power was electorally threatened by the MDC. The MDC and anyone who opposed Mugabe was branded a CIA-, London- or simply ‘Western’- funded force to reverse the gains of independence or to maintain the status quo.
The stratagem worked for Mugabe and Zanu-PF, irrespective of the loss of life, disappearance of several vocal civil society opponents, mass displacement of Zimbabwean nationals into neighbouring countries – especially into South Africa – and the destruction it caused to the once-thriving Zimbabwean economy.
Confusing the world
The mixed messages sent out to the rest of the world about much of what is going on in the country, ‘Thuma Mina’ notwithstanding, must be confusing to the rest of the world, wondering if Nelson Mandela’s South Africa is truly back. They’re also confusing for many of us, right here in the country. We are constantly trying to distinguish Ramaphosa the ANC president from Ramaphosa the state president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Republic of South Africa, the constitutional democracy we all signed up to under the caring, watchful eye of former president Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s.
It is more confusing when Ramaphosa, the state president, gets photographed kneeling in front of tribal kings whose interests are not in tune with the vision of the democracy wherein all citizens are equal before the law and the institutions of the land, all designed carefully to ensure such equality.
The symbolic irony of this image – our head of state kneeling as he was – seems to have escaped many blind supporters. South Africans expect their president to live up to the values enshrined in their Constitution and Bill of Rights, shunning all that does not hold these ideals high, even if ‘all else’ might be in the interest of narrow political considerations he might be captive to.
We cannot be a winning country while we keep sending out confusing messages about what we really want to be known for, as a country, and to be associated with.