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SA – increasingly the proverbial curate’s egg



There’s a story I heard as a child from Bishop Cowdry, my best friend, John’s, dad. My mom, Hermione, met John’s mother, Bettie, at the nursing home, when they were both waiting to have their babies. John and I were born one day apart, and have been brothers for 56 years.

The Cowdrys would come to the Abels for Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, and we’d all go to them for Easter and Christmas. A magnificent tradition that lasted for more than 40 years until our parents passed.

So here’s the story. A curate (the assistant to a senior clergyman) is dining with his boss, the bishop. The bishop says to the curate, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg there.” To which the nervous curate, not wanting to upset the bishop, responds, “Oh no my Lord, it’s excellent in parts.”

And this is where we find ourselves right now in our much loved South Africa. A place with significant issues, but still good in parts. And sometimes that can be hard to see. As that age-old truism goes: “It’s all about perspective.”

There’s little doubt we’re enduring significantly worrying times. As if rolling blackouts of up to half a day aren’t bad enough, some suburbs and cities endure frequent water supply issues and calamitous droughts due to horrendous neglect and poor water-provision planning and management. More than 20 people have died recently from cholera in Hammanskraal. All tragically and maddeningly avoidable.

And then, we’re bombarded with news of the ghoulish spectre of a potential grid collapse and the apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max proportions that would ensue. Right now, we’re sadly no Xanadu. But where is?

And I’ll be the first to admit that our highly questionable and damaging global perception of cosying up to Russia, true or not, as the Union Buildings restates our neutrality, have me, as my grandparents generation might have observed, having a conniption.

The possible implications and socio-economic fallout from our geopolitical meanderings may have many unintended consequences in a country with zero financial give.

There’s no margin for error with our debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio, our record unemployment levels, and our climbing interest rates, with additional greylisting status. All rather troubling and little space to tinker with domestic and foreign-investment faith. Our current bond sell-offs tell that story.

So, against this backdrop, which may not be considered entirely ideal for peace of mind, why do I still have faith in South Africa?

The first answer is our people. South Africans, by and large, are incredibly decent, kind, patient, resourceful, resilient, and good. I experience this every single day.

We South African Jews don’t come from a happy past – any of us. Those who fled Russia, Lithuania, or Poland. Those who escaped Germany. We’ve seen how “civilised” countries are capable of the most extreme barbarism to their citizens. And extreme brutality to other countries far from home via colonialism, with nary a concern for the owners and local inhabitants of those countries.

It’s been said, if the British could have lifted the pyramids, they’d be in a museum in the United Kingdom today. This tongue-in-cheek observation isn’t entirely without foundation.

Would I like to live in a country considered the greatest democracy on earth, but where guns outnumber citizens?

Is South Africa at its lowest ebb right now? Definitely not. We live in a country with huge issues, none of which we can’t fix with the right people, in the right place, making the right decisions, but it’s a free country. It’s not a place where 90% of the population live in abject poverty due to significantly constrained freedoms while 10% enjoy a good life. That’s an aberration. One we knew only too well.

South Africa is sadly nowhere near where it should be almost 30 years post-apartheid. The inequality gap should have closed considerably over these three decades, and when you see what a Singapore, Israel, or United Arab Emirates have achieved over the same period with very limited resources compared to our abundance of natural assets, it’s a profound tragedy.

It’s the impact of trillions of rands of maladministration and corruption. It’s all mostly fixable, but only if we make the right decisions about leadership and implementation. That’s where it begins and where it ends.

We have world-rivalling companies in tech, banking, telecoms, agriculture, mining, the creative industry, manufacturing, healthcare, green energy, automotive, retail, and more. All exceptional in every way.

Big business and the smaller entrepreneurs that make up our country can, if liberated to do so, transform South Africa. These are the good parts of the curate’s egg. Layer on that our hospitality industry and natural assets. Our extreme beauty, our tourism possibilities, and our affordability, South Africa can and should be booming.

Our government, policies, and decisions just need to be able to unlock all this potential. And we can play a huge role in directing this. Through guidance, through pressure, through wisdom, and at the ballot box. We have a huge job to do. But it can be done.

Hunter S Thompson wrote something that I love and try to live by, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’.”

And this is our South Africa.

Hugely challenging. Far from perfect. Full of ups and downs. But the ride of a lifetime, if you can stay on the horse until it stops bucking. If you can play your role in calming it and taking it into the meadows for a more gentle ride.

In no way do I underplay our significant challenges, but there are equally as many opportunities to drive positive change and live a meaningful and rewarding life.

The very personal question to ask is, “Is it enough?” And there should be absolutely no judgement either way.

But if one is to stay in South Africa, rather than simply complain, ideally you need to get involved, as many do, in making a tangible difference. Not rely solely on others to do all the hard (but sometimes rewarding) work for you.

  • Mike Abel is the Founding Partner and Executive Chairman of M&C Saatchi Group South Africa

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Cynthia Barmor

    Jun 9, 2023 at 10:23 am

    I commend your enthusiasm and optimism. However, after 30 years, with no change in sight, methinks you have your heads in the sand and the future is clearly written on the wall.
    I hope to be proven wrong, but i highly doubt it.

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