Melanie Veness, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.
Melanie Veness, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

The letter from FirstRand founder and former executive Paul Harris to a concerned friend has gone viral. And for good reason, because when you read it, you can’t help but want to applaud. Yes, SA has her problems, but all things considered, could you really contemplate living anywhere else?

Apart from being the most beautiful place on Earth, South Africa has a rhythm, a feeling of expectation, much like that feeling just before a big thunderstorm.

It is from passion and uncertainty, potential and expectation. And quite fabulously, she’s a little bit wild.

There is nothing mediocre about South Africa, and those of us who love her, do so deeply.

Some years ago, we went across to a family wedding in Australia, and the family there were trying to convince us to consider relocating. We spent five weeks in Sydney. It’s very beautiful and everything works and everyone obeys all the rules (and there are plenty of them). It was pleasant at first, and then I began to feel stifled.

I realised then how much of a spiritual relationship I have with South Africa. Perhaps it is from growing up in game reserves and on farms, but I need the smells and sights and sounds of her, I need our people and I need the challenge and extremes. And South Africa can be extreme in every sense: she can go from being blisteringly hot to freezing cold, and what happens here can make you ecstatic or furious.

She can be intoxicating, and she can also be very harsh. I think that, as a nation, we are quite open about our problems, often to our detriment perhaps, but I love that about us.

I had a good giggle at the export conference last week when the American trade presenter was making the point that it is important to understand the culture of the people in whatever country you are hoping to do business in.

He went on to explain that South Africans generally are very formal on the outside and very informal on the inside, and that Americans tend to be the opposite. We dress very smartly, but engage in fairly intimate conversations upfront, on issues like politics and family, which are considered “too familiar” by most Americans.

South Africa is far from perfect, but when you weigh it all up, there is no better place on Earth and it is worth fighting for the changes that we want to see. Maybe it’s a throw-back from my Irish heritage, but I’d love to see more honest and robust engagement.

Let’s put the good, the bad and the ugly on the table and let’s find solutions to our challenges. There aren’t any problems too big to solve.