Can we change the SA narrative?

22nd January 2016 By: Terence Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

Can we change the SA narrative?

So it’s going to be another difficult year economically and socially.

Sadly, we have started 2016 on the wrong foot. The rand has come under intense pressure, owing to a combination of internal (read political and policy) crosswinds and external headwinds. Some South Africans have also demonstrated a disturbing lack of sensitivity to the historical legacies of racism, inequality and poverty that still shape our society and economy.

Taking its lead from the domestic media, the narrative of backsliding is progressively taking root in international reportage on South Africa too, which, in turn, will exact a toll on investor perceptions and investment.

In such a context, it is easy to be washed away by the powerful waves of negativity and to dismiss the country’s potential. In other words, it is increasingly difficult to view South Africa as a land of opportunity, never mind the mythical miracle.

Unless South Africans begin to rediscover and actively rebuild a sense of hope, however, the outlook will become bleaker by the minute.

Having such an outlook does not mean being blind to the very real threats currently being faced by the country and the economy. To be sure, all of us need to make a genuine effort to understand our society with all its complexities and contradictions – a failure to do so will breed the type of amnesia that has characterised many of the statements on race in the past few weeks.

Living with a greater sense of optimism should also not imply unquestioning loyalty to government. Constructive efforts to push back against corruption and guard against the erosion of democratic values, principles and institutions should be relentlessly supported.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency among domestic and foreign commentators currently to present a relatively unbalanced story – one that emphasises the problems (which, admittedly, abound), but is more or less mute on areas of progress or potential.

True, just about all our public institutions and companies are struggling to perform to acceptable levels, but it is not yet a lost cause unless South Africans make it so. An alternative narrative is surely possible – not one that seeks to hide or deny the country’s serious difficulties, but one premised on a vision of a society that works for all its citizens.

Arguably, such a narrative can only gain credibility and momentum if and when government and civil society reach a degree of consensus on the country’s priorities and how to tackle them. In other words, the new story line needs to be supported by a unifying vision that provides the framework for partnership and compromise.

Delivering such a vision may well come down to understanding that governing in South Africa in 2016 is probably less about grand plans and policy perfection than it is about focusing on incremental and sustainable improvements, especially in the areas of health, education, security and service delivery.

Whether it is possible, in an election year, to craft such a vision and action plan and to drive a new narrative of hope is debatable. What is not debatable is that decisive action is needed to address what is becoming a serious image problem, which could take many years to reverse.