By GAVIN HERON
A friend of mine told me an interesting story: his cousin’s sister’s friend’s brother’s ex-girlfriend’s brother had emigrated to New Zealand and was working late.
A colleague came up to him and insisted that he go home to his family because it was after 5 pm. This story illustrates a key SA trait. We buy easily into myths, especially when comparing ourselves with other countries. So we end up saying “Jo’burg is just like Sydney, only not on the sea”, or “When you go to a top restaurant in the Cape winelands you could, except for the accent, feel like you were in California”.
Why is it that we feel this continual need to (a) denigrate the “supposed” working habits of other countries, and (b) always compare what we have to somewhere else?
In 1995 I was transferred to London to a large advertising agency. I returned, after stints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, early last year. When I left, Nelson Mandela was building a nonracial SA culture, we were proud of our sportswomen and men, and we felt we were ready to take on the world. We were proud of our new “rainbow nation”. And Ubuntu was something we believed was true. We still had that “nothin is impossible” spirit. We fixed things. Made things happen.
But still, as is our nature, we whined about a lot of things, including our children, dogs, bosses, Telkom, Eskom, the neighbours, the roads, traffic lights, the rugby team and cricket team, the taxman, and the pointsman managing the traffic jam. It seems we South Africans are not happy unless we have something to whine about.
‘It’s in South Africans’ nature to whine – but also to fix and make things happen. But we will succeed when we get our balls back!’
But this never stopped our positivity and “get it done” spirit. When I came back it seemed we had moved backwards. Instead of whingeing and then fixing things, we waited for someone else to do the fixing. Yes, there are companies that have simply gone out and fixed things. The Outsurance pointsman (and woman) is a fantastic example of identifying a problem and developing a solution. As is Lasher, which after 97 years is still making shovels that you’ll be able to pass down to your children’s children.
But for the rest ? Dysfunctional communities. Inferior service delivery. Corruption. “As long as I’m OK” behaviour coupled with conspicuous consumption. The middle-classes absconding from their duty to make their voices heard at the polling booth (and then complaining about government). Yes, we have a right to complain. Crime. Housing. Education. Eskom. But does complaining and not actually doing anything change anything?
We have a huge amount to be proud of. Our country works. Just take a drive down to Cape Town on the N1. Take a turn on to Route 62 and count ostriches as you go through De Rust and Oudtshoorn. Our country is the most amazing place. And every day we meet the most fantastic people; like Pieter, the owner of Bordeaux Restaurant in Colesberg, who knows how to cook, deliciously, every single part of a sheep, who’s not complaining, who’s gregarious, and who pays such attention to detail that when he prepares a sheep’s head he brushes its back teeth. As with people like Pieter, we need to change our attitude. It’s in our nature to whine. But more importantly it’s in our nature to fix things and make things happen. South Africans are the most fantastic, generous people. And also the most practical.
We should be SA. Not New York in Jo’burg. Not France in Franschhoek. Not Australia in Kosi Bay. We need to assert our own identity. Our own pride in who we are and what we are about. Establish our own unique identity; an identity which asserts all the greatness of our country. And with the World Cup coming, we have an enormous opportunity to impress. There’s still lots to fix. Lots to do. But we will succeed; but only when we get our balls back!
Heron is Group MD, TBWAHuntLascaris – This article appeared in the FM of 12 February 2010