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During a trip to India, not so long ago, I came across a billboard alongside a busy highway in New Delhi, whose message has forever stuck with me.
The message on that billboard consisted of this phrase: “Nation First. Every time. Everywhere”. I have thought long and hard about this powerful principle, and how it ought to resonate not only with the passersby in New Delhi but with every South African too, at every level of our society. I do not know the full story behind the New Delhi billboard, but what I do know is that the words inscribed on it represented a certain hope – a hope for a new mindset in every citizen, more so in those that hold the reins of power.
As a country still struggling to find its footing following decades of a brutal apartheid regime, it is not unrealistic to think that South Africans had hoped the new era would be premised on something akin to “Nation First. Every time. Everywhere”.
But, as many can attest, what we have witnessed, particularly in the last five years, is nothing close to the “Nation First. Every time. Everywhere” principle.
Instead, we have seen the promise of a more united, caring and just society replaced by bully politics – the kind that only cares for its own.
It is the kind of politics that rewards mediocrity, the kind of politics that thrives of partisanship, the kind of politics that stifles excellence and open debate.
The story of the New Delhi billboard is very apt in the context of what is about to unfold over the next few days.
The ANC, which governs this country, will face what is possibly its biggest test since the dawning of a “new South Africa” some 18 years ago.
The ANC’s elective conference takes place in Mangaung, a city in the Free State that will soon find itself associated with political infamy in the same sort of fashion as Polokwane in Limpopo.
As an ardent reader of Business Report, you will probably ask yourself what will have changed by this time next year, when the last applause in Mangaung has long since been forgotten. To be sure, very little.
One only has to look at the cartoon on our front page today to realise that as a society we have been very adept at taking one step forward and two steps backward, be it in business, sport, governance or otherwise. At 18 years of age, we are the teenager that is just refusing to grow into adulthood. So much is said about South Africa being endowed with mineral wealth that some estimate to be worth as much as $2.5 trillion (R22 trillion), yet there appears to be no coherent plan to unlock this natural endowment for the benefit of all.
So much is said about how bad our education system is, yet there remains no concerted effort to provide the sort of schooling that produces innovators, thinkers and active citizens, imbued with the sense of “Nation First. Every time. Everywhere”.
An oft-repeated remark by Brian Molefe, the chief executive of Transnet, helps to further illustrate just how much South Africa has left its fate to chance. On several occasions Molefe has noted that of all the ships that call at our ports, none are registered as South African. So ask yourself, who is shipping our iron ore to China and steel back to South Africa? It is the Chinese themselves. Who is shipping the car components to assemble the cars that South Africans are so much in love with?
It is not South Africans but the Japanese, the Germans and the Koreans. Are we that scared of the ocean? How is that possible when we are surrounded by two mighty oceans – the Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
And those who study history know full well how the ocean helped write our history. What transpired in 1652 set in motion a course of events that forever changed the make-up of this nation at the foot of the African continent.
The ocean surely must play a part in our future just as it did in our past. Maybe with time we will realise how much of the country’s energy got spent dodging tough questions and tough choices in order to put narrow interests above all else.
One hopes that as a nation, we will rise up to our good sense and not choose the board game – Crapopoly – as our pastime. Making that choice begins with the ANC delegates to Mangaung. So, roll the dice!
Column by Ellis Mnyandu, Business Report Editor.