South Africa has survived bad leaders for generations, and it will the current lot.
What the 2023 Rugby World Cup has again demonstrated is that South Africans are so much more than those that manage to ooze their way into positions of political power, and, in too many cases, abuse the trust of long-suffering voters. The Springboks have shown what is possible and the “Stronger Together” slogan which brought them to victory, a demonstration of the one thing that, properly harnessed, can ignite a much-needed turnaround in South Africa’s flagging fortunes.
Victory in the World Cup is not the product of popularity contests, political posturing, and vacuous slogans; but the result of relentless self-sacrifice, consistent preparation, astonishing resolve, and is one of the finest examples of collaboration for a common purpose by a group of exceptionally led, diverse people who are among the very best in the world at what they do.
“There is so much going wrong in our country – we are the last line of defence,” Springbok captain Siya Kolisi said after the game. “So many people are helpless and there is so much division, but we show there is hope.”
He is right. However history shows that social progress cannot depend just on inspirational leadership. It requires words put into action. Consistently.
In 1995 post-match interview Francois Pienaar corrected his interviewer, “We didn’t have 60 000 South Africans supporting us, there were 43 million….” and for a while, under the gaze of a beaming Nelson Mandela, famously wearing the captain’s number 6 jersey, anything seemed possible.
South Africa entered a period of growth, regained investment grade and millions more people found jobs thanks to the tailwinds of a booming global economy and low interest rates as the Berlin Wall came down and the world opened as the start of the Chinese economic boom began to take shape. It had nothing to do with the rugby, but the game demonstrated to South African’s that they were not trapped in some forgotten backwater, but were rather capable of delivering far more than even they believed they could.
In 2007 it was the turn of John Smit who described winning as being akin to the birth of his children, but it wasn’t long after that an awkward looking Thabo Mbeki who had joined the celebrations of victory over England in France, was booted out of office by the ANC hellbent on putting Jacob Zuma in power. That coincided with the global financial crisis which initially provided some cover for the feeding frenzy of state resources that ensued taking the country to the brink of collapse by the time the party eventually fired its second president in a decade on Valentines Day 2017.
South Africa was consumed by the potential of change as we went from a brief period of Rampahoria, characterized by the hope that a change at the top would affect a change in society. But it quickly shifted to Ramareality to a Rama WTF! The hard reality is that with all the best will in the world, a change of one leader cannot alter the trajectory of a country without a rigorous clean up of dead wood and failed governance.
The Zuma era did enormous damage not only to the ability of government to do its job, but to South Africa’s global reputation and its citizens sense of national self-esteem. When coach Rassie Erasmus was asked in 2019 how he’d managed the stress in the final in Japan: “Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure, it should be something that brings hope. In South Africa pressure is not having a job.”
Post match interviews celebrating the euphoria of a world cup win are wonderful moments and Saturday in Paris was no different.
The brutal reality is that South Africa remains a country of missed opportunities. To truly capitalize on its potential, the country needs to move beyond its moments of brilliance and use its innate success to strategically build a better country.
Forgive me for recycling some of my favourite quotes, but they are relevant here.
It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who about 20 years ago described South Africa as a “scintillating success just waiting to happen.” Saturday showed that. A correspondent with then Prime Minister Jan Smuts about 80 years ago wrote that South Africa is a peculiar kind of place where things are “never as bad as they could be, but never as good as they should be.” That remains true to this day.
For all the country’s potential, we waste the opportunities handed to us by the likes of the Springboks and quickly sink back into bad habits. No sooner had the final whistle blown, than Eskom for example announced the resumption of loadshedding. Bad habits are hard to break. If you have read James Clear’s bestselling Atomic Habits, it demonstrates how we can shift poor behaviors in our personal lives, and through the ceaseless repetition of new behaviors, can alter our personal circumstances for good.
This must be possible on a national level too. If we can use what it is that we are good at consistently, and with strategic intent, it would not take long to see a real difference materialize in society.
But what to do?
The task is monumental. As Kolisi pointed out on Saturday night, too much is going wrong, and it doesn’t get fixed just because a squad of the finest athletes in the land from diverse backgrounds have once again defied the odds and have won against the finest of the game from around the globe.
The Reserve Bank governor Lesetya Kganyago nailed it in a 2021 speech in Stellenbosch: “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” I have heard it expressed differently before in that South Africa tries to “boil the ocean.” We need to move beyond empty political statements to real changes that can shift outcomes for people every day.
More than 50 democracies hold elections next year and in a fraught and contested world, each one of those is going to feel like a make or break for the future.
In America, it’s a battle between centrist and far right and Donald Trump supporters who appreciate his brash, straight talking, climate change denialism. In Britain it’s a battle to unseat an increasingly unpopular Conservative Party in a country which may not quite be ready for a swing to the left despite what polls say and in South Africa, where the same party has been in power for 30 years with worsening outcomes for voters, it could see its support plummet to around 40% according to numerous studies from the likes of researchers like Frans Cronje and the Brenthurst Foundation. That opens South Africa to an era of messy coalition politics.
If you have time, please watch in the original Danish, with subtitles please, Borgen, on Netflix. In case you missed the self serving mess that has characterized coalitions in South Africa, the series will show you just how divisive tenuous coalitions can be. Opposition parties with their rainbow coalition will seek to rattle the cage, but depending on leadership and teamwork and a shared sense of purpose, the country is doomed to stumbling from self induced crisis to self-induced crisis in perpetuity.
Cue the Adrian Gore quote: “The right people with the right leadership can achieve anything.”
Saturday showed that, as have Saturday’s before that. We missed those opportunities. It’s on us if we let this one pass us by too.