South Africa: We Fix

Yvonne JohnstonVictoria Clarke, who was chief communicator for Donald Rumsfeld, the American secretary of defence, has just published a memoir. The title is “Lipstick on a Pig”. Clarke’s message to those of us who toil in the vineyard of public relations is that if the client has a pig of a story to tell, putting lipstick on it won’t make it any prettier or more saleable.

Did I mention Clarke is no longer at the Pentagon?

At IMC, we don’t use lipstick. At least not on pigs. We don’t have to. For one thing, we have a great story to tell. For another, nobody is pressing us to hide the bits that aren’t so great. We have challenges in this country, serious ones. They are part of the story. We must never deny it.  In a very important way,  they are part of what of makes our story great.

‘Getting things fixed’

You see, what makes South Africa the amazing place it is is the extraordinary capacity of our people to meet challenges head on and find solutions.

If we’re sometimes a little testy with each other, it’s because we’re impatient with those whose sole contribution is to moan about what’s wrong. But we’ve got lots of time for people who are ready to work on the practicalities of getting things fixed.

IMC’s US country manager Simon Barber tells me there’s a garage not far from Washington, which advertises its services in a striking way.  The owner has hoisted a seriously wrecked Volkswagen beetle on the top of a telephone pole and on the side of the beetle, he has painted the words We Fix.  The shop lives up to its motto.  Its mechanics do tough jobs well.

Everyone here will, I hope, be familiar with our pay off line for South Africa, “alive with possibility”, but what is it that makes the slogan ring true?  What make this one of the most exciting places to be in the world today?

By way of at least a partial answer, our country manager proposes another slogan, borrowed from his local garage: “South Africa — We Fix.”

‘Finding solutions’

South Africans have established a terrific track record of fixing what others have written off as terminally broken and of finding solutions where others have despaired.

Few observers really believed that South Africans would come together the way they did in 1994. As the American columnist Roger Cohen wrote in the International Herald Tribune the other day:

“That apartheid’s demise would be violent was almost universally accepted. The swimming pools of the white-owned villas in the leafy northern Johannesburg suburbs would run red with blood; the whites would flee; and the African National Congress would wreck the strongest economy by imposing doctrinaire communism.”

Didn’t happen. Instead we have representatives from every troubled corner of the planet — from Iraq,  Palestine and Israel, from Northern Ireland to mention just a few – coming to us to see how we pulled off what actually did happen

How did we do it? Oceans of ink has been spent on this topic, but perhaps the best short explanation I’ve seen came from President Mbeki is his speech to parliament  on the tabling on the TRC report in 2003.

“At a critical moment in our history,” he said, “we came as a people to the conclusion that we must, together, end the killing. We took the deliberate decision that a violent conflict was not in the interest of our country nor would it solve our problems.

“Together we decided that in the search for a solution to our problems, nobody should be demonized or excluded. We agreed that everybody should become part of the solution, whatever the might have done or represented in the past. This related both to the negotiating of the future of our country and working to build the new South Africa we had all negotiated.”

In a nutshell, this is the spirit of  “South Africa – We Fix”.

Ordinary people  doing extraordinary things

I wish everyone would drop, once and for all, the word miracle from the lexicon of descriptions for this country’s achievements. It reeks of  low expectations. And it misses the point. South Africans are not miracle people.

We’re quite ordinary human beings with an extraordinary diversity of knowledge, wisdom and talent, who makes things work.

And the more we’ve been able combine the splendid diversity of our human capital, the better we’ve made things work.

Consider our constitution, ten years old this year. Some people still grumble that it’s a hodgepodge of compromises cobbled together to meet a deadline. Depending on where they’re coming from, they wish there had been fewer protections for property rights or that second generation rights to housing, health care, clean water and the like had not been included or that there had been greater recognition of group rights or that we opted for something other than list based proportional representation.

But look at the South Africa the constitution has helped build, precisely because it was able to encompass the full diversity of genius in our country.

We are today a tolerant and stable society because everyone came away feeling ownership in the result. And we have a strong economy because our leaders knew to the realize the ambitious social agenda we set for ourselves in the constitution, we would have to create the wealth to pay for it. And what helped us create the wealth? Peace, stability and property rights that are just as secure as they are in the US.

‘Steadily rising  growth’

Ten years ago, how many of you honestly would have thought we’d be sitting here in 2006 with inflation and interests rate at historic lows, enjoying 87 months of steadily rising growth, with our government in a position to launch a massive capital expenditure program while running budget deficits that are the envy of fiscal hawks the world over?

Would you have projected that our stock market would have been among the world’s top performer’s in 2005, posted a total return of 47 per cent? Would you have said we’d be attracting more FDI than India?

How many of us really foresaw the creativity and energy that our fusion into a new nation would trigger, or it how would take our economy onto a new plane?

Our economy is in the midst of an extraordinary tectonic shift. You see it in the retail sales figures, you see in the explosion in new car sales (and traffic jams), you see it the now almost routine windfalls of unforeseen tax revenue.

Maybe we have all underestimated our capacity as South Africans to get things fixed. But other are starting to catch on.

‘Doing difficult things well’

One of IMC’s guests, Roger Bate, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute has been telling people after touring the country with us last November: “South Africans seem to specialize in doing difficult things well.”

Roger was part of  a group of American science writers to take a look at our science and technology.  We called the 10-day tour South African Solutions.  We took our visitors to Anglogold Ashanti’s Mponeng mine. We took them to Sasol. They saw fuel elements for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor being manufactured at Pelindaba. They met AIDS researchers doing groundbreaking work at Chris Hani Baragwanath. They saw state-of-the-art winemaking at Tokara. They went to the opening of the Southern African Large Telescope – and spent the night at the Karoo Hotel in Sutherland, which I have to tell you is not on the typical tourist trail.

And that was just the half of it. They met biologists, anthropologists, geneticists, nuclear physicists, software engineers, geologists, hydrologists, and more. And to help put it all in context for them, we took them to Robben Island and Hector Pietersen Memorial and its stunning museum, we showed the high points and the low points of Soweto and we had them stay at bed and breakfasts in Orlando West, where, needless to say,  the hospitality was beyond compare.

This group will never think or write about South Africa in the same way after that trip. It was impossible not to come away from those ten days without agreeing with Roger Bate that South Africans do difficult things well.

Getting from June 16, 1976 to April 1, 2006 the way we have is no mean feat. It has taken guts, it has taken resourcefulness and a great capacity for lateral thinking, it has taken patience and determination, it has taken teamwork and a talent for human relations. Our politics has not been for amateurs or sissies.

Teamwork and collaboration

While perhaps not in quite the same league of accomplishment, digging gold out of a sliver of a seam three kilometers underground is no mean feat, either.  It too takes guts, resourcefulness and lateral thinking,  patience and determination, and, yes, a great capacity for teamwork and collaboration.  It’s not for amateurs or sissies, either. The pressure down there makes the rock hot to the touch. To cool it at the Mponeng mine, Anglogold Ashanti has had to build the largest snowmaking machine in the world.

To anyone here who hasn’t been down one of our deep mines, I strongly recommend it – it’s an outlook changing experience. In every sense, it helps you understand what we’re made of. Let’s say it again. South Africans do difficult things well.

Every sort of difficult thing: From building prize-winning catamarans to inventing respirators that may save countless miner’s lives using gold as a catalyst to turn deadly carbon monoxide into CO2.

From solving the riddles of a nuclear reactor technology that will reinvent the industry to uncovering the secret lives of dinosaurs from the fossilized residue of the DNA.

From designing software that will track down and deter corruption to converting the might of the Congo River into light for a continent.

From inventing the world’s first truly economic photovoltaic solar panel to revolutionizing the care and treatment of AIDS patients in resource poor setting by designing new testing equipment and harnessing the Internet for long distance diagnostics and patient monitoring.

Most difficult of all

And yes, we do that most difficult of things. We make great wine. Congratulations to Vergelegen for being named best new world wine of the year by Wine Enthusiast in New York.

And let’s not forget great films. Out of South Africans’ wondrous fusion comes Oscar-winner Tsotsi. Tsotsi is a vital window on the South African condition. It reminds us that we still have much to fix. Poverty, crime, disease.  But in its message of redemption, not to mention the enormous talent it puts on display ,  Tsotsi also reminds us, and the world, that we have it in us as South Africans to do the fixing.

South Africa. We don’t put lipstick on a pig. We fix.

Yvonne Johnston