Don’t worry about us, we’re doing fine

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NM_nm SA flag0 Getty Images SA has its fair share of problems, but there is no denying that there are many advantages to living here, writes Paul Harris.

Hi Jeff. Hope all is well with you guys. I will drop you a line later with the family news, but I would first like to respond to the e-mail you sent me attaching an article by Clem Sunter which seemed to concern you about us here in SA.

You also sent me an article last year by Moeletsi Mbeki warning about the danger of an “Arab Spring” in SA.

I often get e-mails like this from “concerned friends” worried about us, which is sweet of you guys. Of course we are concerned. Some worrying things have happened, but we have been through and survived much worse in much more volatile environments. Including the Boer War, two world wars, apartheid, the rinderpest, Ge Korsten and Die Antwoord!

However, for as long as I can remember there have always been people who think SA has five years left before we go over the cliff. No change from when I was at school in the sixties. The five years went down to a few months at times in the eighties. But it seems the people who are the most worried live far from the cliff in places like Toronto, Auckland, London and other wet and cold places.

Also from St Ives and Rose Bay in Sydney, Dallas and Europe and other “safe places” that are in the grip of the global financial crisis, which by the way is quite scary. Many of them have survived decades of rolling “five years left” since they left SA. So maybe they will be right one day.

My message is, please don’t stress about us in SA. We are fine. We are cool. We know we live in the most beautiful country in the world inhabited by warm and vibrant people.

NM_nm harris0 Former FirstRand Group CEO Paul Harris inlsa

There are more people here with smiles on their faces than any country I have ever been to! Young people are returning in droves with skills and a positive attitude. Collectively we bumble along and stuff many things up while letting off a hell of a lot of steam (have you heard of a chap called Julius Malema?).

Yet in between South Africans do some amazing things, like win a few gold medals, big golf tournaments and cricket and rugby matches.

The South Africans I know get off their butts and do things to build our country rather than whinge from a position of comfort. We actively participate in projects that improve the lot of underprivileged communities. I would not trade for anything last Saturday in a hall full of 1 500 African teachers singing at the top of their voices and demonstrating their commitment to improving education in their communities.

We have our challenges and surprises. The standard deviation of our emotions are set at MAX. You are never just a “little bit happy” or a “little bit sad”. At one moment you can be “off the scale” p***** off or frustrated or sad or worried or fearful or depressed.

Humbled

The next moment you are “off the scale” exhilarated, or enchanted, or inspired, or humbled by a kind deed, or surprised by something beautiful. It makes life interesting and worth living. After all, why do we have emotions?

We also have passionate debates about the future of SA. Helped of course by red wine, which you must taste again because it is getting better every year. Clem makes a great contribution to the debate, as do others like Moeletsi Mbeki. Russell Loubser, the ex-head of the JSE, made a feisty speech the other day that has whipped up emotions.

Up to MAX on the emotions meter of the ANC Youth League, whose campaign for nationalisation of the mines was attributed to people who have IQs equal to room temperature.

South African politics has always been volatile, we have opinions that could not be further apart and it evokes emotion on a massive scale. Interesting and stimulating for those that want to take it seriously, but noise in the system to me. Fortunately we are rid of apartheid – that would definitely have pushed us over the cliff.

These are the birth pangs of a new and unpredictable democracy. So buckle up and enjoy the ride and contribute. That is the message I convey to South Africans.

Sad as it is, it is true that the South African diaspora has a largely negative influence on confidence in SA. It would not be a problem if their fretting about how long we will last before we go over the cliff was merely a reflection of their concern for us, their friends and family.

The problem is that it does impact on foreign investment, which is important for economic growth. A person that is thinking of coming to visit or investing is often put off by listening wide-eyed at the stories of people who have gapped it.

As you know, I own Ellerman House, which hosts many foreign visitors, and I have never, ever met anyone who has visited for the first time without being blown away by the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people.

It is not for nothing that SA has the highest ratio of repeat visitors of all long-haul destinations. So, Jeff, how can I help you stop stressing out about us? Maybe best is that you get exposed to some articles and websites that give a more balanced and uplifting perspective of SA.

I have attached some links below that you may find interesting. The two websites are SA The Good News and The Homecoming Revolution. Both have stories that will make you feel better. One article is by a young Jewish lady, Martine Schaffer, that I work with and admire greatly.

I will sum up my feelings about SA with a quote from Joanne Fedler’s book When Hungry – Eat, which Martine also quotes.

Joanne emigrated to Australia in early 2000.

“SA is a place of spirit-distorting paradox, a land with a bipolar disorder that swings you from joy to despair in the space of a heartbeat.

“It twists your arm behind your back and ties your sanity in a knot. It bullies you until you’ve forged your opinion on politics, crime, Aids, the state of the roads, the economy or the politicians.

“It’s not for the wishy washy or the fence sitters. It demands you know who you are and what you stand for.

“It keeps you fit, on your toes and looking over your shoulder. It steals your purse and holds your soul ransom.

“As much as I was, at times, on the edge of sanity living there, I was also stimulated, driven and felt bungy-jumpingly alive.

“The shades of happiness and fear mottled. I knew that leaving, like chemotherapy, would kill off the best things in my life as well as the worst.”

So please don’t worry, and if you get a chance, put in a good word for us.

l This is a letter written by Paul Harris, former FirstRand Group CEO, to a friend abroad.


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