Business Maverick


After the Bell: All the bad news that’s fit to print

After the Bell: All the bad news that’s fit to print

Good times are followed by bad, and the bad is followed by the good. The pendulum swings. We learn. We move on. History is a litany of triumphs of achievement and stupid relapses into conflict and brainlessness. But overall, the trajectory is upwards.

Allow me to pass on two pieces of statistical information.

First, can you guess which country in the world has the highest suicide rate? Well, that would be South Africa according to the World Health Organization (WHO) which puts the suicide rate in SA at 23.5 per 100,000 people. The runner-up is Russia, with 21.6, and South Korea, with 21.2. Just to illustrate the extent of the problem, at the bottom of the WHO list is Jordan, with a suicide rate of two people per 100,000. And yet, suicide is barely mentioned in the media, social or otherwise. Other lists put other countries higher, but generally, SA is pretty much up there.

And second, what about the proportion of people involved in car accidents who are drunk? Well, surprise! The top of that list is, you guessed it, South Africa. An earlier WHO study showed that 58% of car accidents in SA involved a drunk driver. The next closest country that year (2015) was Canada, which had around half that proportion. South Africans drive drunk, causing accidents, and the consequences are totally obvious. We know the syndrome; we know the consequences.

The country has been overwhelmed with bad news over the past few months, and the mood of the country is grumpier than a drunk buffalo with a headache (not driving a car, one presumes). From uncontrolled load shedding to, can you believe it, a cholera outbreak! I don’t think I have ever seen a more negative news flow in my 40 years of journalism. It’s just been unrelenting, awful and dispiriting.

Leaving aside for a moment the specifics of the actual issues involved, how should South Africans deal with this tornado of bad news? For God’s sake, give us a pinch of hope, a friend emailed me recently.

One approach is to just ignore it, and focus on the immediate issues that absolutely have to be surmounted, but other than that, fok voort, as they say in Afrikaans. It reminds me of that good news/bad news joke: 

The doctor says to the patient, “I have bad news and I have worse news.” “Give me the worst news first,” says the patient. “You have cancer,” says the doctor. “Oh no. What’s the bad news?” “You have Alzheimer’s.” “Well, at least I don’t have cancer,” says the patient.

The joke, of course, illustrates the obvious point that ignoring problems doesn’t in fact help. There are, instead, three ways, I think, to deal with bad news: contextualisation, negative visualisation and transformation.

Contextualisation is the process of ensuring that what you are feeling is in its proper context. It’s really the process of checking that you are not inadvertently overstating the problem because of the sheer volume of bad news.

And South Africa should be good at this — we have a PhD in catastrophising. The question to ask is whether SA circa 2023 is worse than SA circa 1983. Trust me, without wanting to minimise load shedding or drunk driving, or suicide, even with all that is happening around us, SA is still a better place now than it was then. All you need is context.

What about negative visualisation? This is a related process; the question you need to ask is this: is this the worst it could be? There are circumstances when the answer might be “yes”. But generally, when you think about it, the answer is “no, it could be worse”, and there is some comfort in that.

And the third system is transformation, and it’s my personal favourite because I suspect it might also be true of SA today: you need to think of the good news in the bad news. To put it differently, in what way will the bad news transform the situation into something better?

In a sense, history on a macro- and a micro-scale is constituted by vacillation from the mean: good times are followed by bad, and the bad is followed by the good. The pendulum swings. We learn. We move on. History is a litany of triumphs of achievement and stupid relapses into conflict and brainlessness. But overall, the trajectory is upwards.

Remember the Greek economic crisis? How it was going to destroy the European Union? How Greece was just overwhelmed with debt? Greece lost a third of its GDP from its peak to the trough in 2013. Well, I read yesterday, it is now back to one notch away from an investment grade rating.  

It’s like the hospital surgeon told his patient, “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” The patient said, “Give me the bad news.” The doctor said, “We are going to have to amputate both of your feet.” The patient said, “Oh, that’s terrible! What’s the good news?” The doctor said, “The patient in the next bed wants to buy your slippers.”

There is always a silver lining. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fritz Milosevic Milosevic says:

    Not sure if circa 2023 is better in SA than circa 2019. I would beg to differ. Hope and a positive outlook in 2019 was in existence. Ramaphosa still got some slack for trying to reform the rotten ANC and fight corruption. This is dead now. It was pre-pandemic. Pre geo-politics escalating. Pre blackouts on an epic scale. And all other meaningful social, economic and environmental metrics have further deteriorated as well. What am I missing? Oh ja – forgot that the NPA is not exactly shooting the lights out.

  • John Francis says:

    I am really enjoying the varied topics you cover in you column daily. This one is particularly apt as one can drown in the negative news we are exposed to daily. Need to keep our chins up! Your advice will help!

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