The Real McCoy: Cry the internal brand

As neither political analyst nor commentator, I approach this space with caution — yet with equal passion and rigour — on the subject of the South African internal brand at such a tumultuous time in our young democracy. This column preparation coincides with two rating-agency downgrades following the dismissal of our minister of finance and the inexplicable midnight cabinet reshuffle announced by President Jacob Zuma, resulting in an unprecedented move by a diverse spectrum of South Africans and civil society to march upon our very president and demand his resignation in order to save the country.

What a diabolical mess in the context of nation-building and the internal country brand.

From hero to zero

I’m not talking about Zuma here. He entered the leadership role in a shroud of controversy at the time, with allegations ranging from the arms-deal transaction and corruption to rape accusations (characterised by cartoon depictions of HIV cleansing under the shower). I clearly recall an industry colleague committing to emigration on that very day; he undoubtedly knew what was coming under Zuma’s leadership and he wasn’t wrong.

I’m referring to the ruling party brought into power in 1994 as a transformative change to South Africa and the commencement of a new democratic country. A nation was energised, galvanised by this change and mesmerised by the inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela, who must clearly be turning in his grave right now at the sight of what has been done to this country in the Zuma era. The moral standard, the spirit of reconciliation, the focus on a better future for all South Africans and the capacity for sustainable change all gave a clue to a set of national values that would take us forward as a country and mobilise a unified people toward a new dispensation.

What has become of that set of values and the behaviours of our people over the last 23 years?

Can the tail wag the dog?

It is uncharacteristic in the corporate world to see a situation in which business leadership is rotten to the core, yet people unite to stand against such leadership and drive the organisation forward. It is the norm in such instances to see leadership being held accountable by the market and, ultimately, the board, often resulting in immediate corrective action and resolution. Just ask Martin Winterkorn, the VW CEO who was forced out within a week of the emission-scandal breaking. Politics is a different animal, but how a leader in this position remains in power and defies the law of gravity is a mystery in itself. As is often said, you have to be careful what you wish for and we as a nation are responsible for putting him into the seat of power. This was never an Idols voting poll, but one of real consequence to this fantastic country and we need to undo it — fast.

So credit to the people of South Africa for rising up on 7 and 12 April 2017 and taking a firm stand against this expression of leadership. The message is very clear from a vast spectrum of South Africans from all race groups, religious groups and political parties — “Zuma must fall” is the voice of the people and the ultimate solution to restoring confidence and a half-decent internal country brand again.

We have the ingredients — tenacity, determination, intelligence and capability as a people — to do what I alluded to in last week’s column citing Senor and Singer, who describe the spirit of the Israelis in uniting against adversity and building a very successful national psyche. No, we are not Israel but we, too, have a troubled past, an extremely challenging present and require something special to build a better future.

So what will it take?

Leadership, for one.

A restoration of some national values, norms and behaviours of the right kind.

As we now approach the Nelson Mandela International Day on 18 July, perhaps our political leadership should reflect on the principles that he held out to this country and what he depicted for a new South Africa. We may even consider the strength of character of his compatriot, Ahmed Kathrada, who was recently laid to rest and who symbolised true democratic leadership and an ethos reflective of its time.

For that matter, we may even reflect on the merits of a competent and ethical minister of finance, such as Pravin Gordhan, rather than the facilitation of ministerial indiscretion, raiding of the treasury and blatant corruption at virtually every state level, symptomatic of financial anarchy.

At the most-fundamental level, the correct leadership will enable us to realign and restore our values, norms and behaviours inside state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the public service as a whole and then, ultimately all our people in the street. We are, in essence, good people in South Africa; people who want a better future for this great country and who work hard toward it — productive and constructive economic and social transformation, rather than the pillage and plunder of the Zimbabwean model under Mugabe leadership that we appear to be trying so hard to mimic.

Behavioural economics 101

In the quirky and sometimes irrational behaviour that is symptomatic of the human being, now is not the time for this in South Africa. We have allowed this to prevail for too long and it is time for the rational person to step forward as we did on 7 and 12 April and no longer allow the fundamental economic (and holistic) trade-off of our country.

This is what the people of South Africa are calling for and will no longer accept. Our internal brand is far stronger than Zuma cares to acknowledge and a spirit that will hopefully save the day.

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