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You can’t play the ‘happy game’ without hope and expectations

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

South Africans have learned, over many years, to be positive and optimistic about their country. We survive the low points and our resilient optimism usually lets us recover from disappointment or disaster. Because we have hope and expectations, somehow they become our reality.

From the expanding discipline of neuroscience we now understand that expectations are the experience of the brain paying attention to a possible reward. Expectations can change brain functioning. The right dose of expectations can be as elevating as a clinical dose of morphine.

That is why we like to look forward to some anticipated positive event like a holiday or a special family celebration. Looking forward creates some of the feeling of the actual event.Expectations activate the dopamine circuitry, central to thinking and learning. When expectations are met there is an increase in dopamine. No matter what the challenges, we are here because we look forward to some kind of peace and prosperity. We have expectations.

Just like people, countries thrive on positive affirmation. And, just like people, when they get negative feedback they wither. When the dopamine dose the brain chemistry needs to work towards reward is withheld, we become fearful and negative. We need the ‘fix’ to sustain ourselves.

This being South Africa, we have also learned to fake it. So when we are asked about South Africa when travelling abroad, or meeting international visitors, we talk it up. “Africa,” we say, “is the new hot market and South Africa is its major driver.”

And then we come face-to-face with the message emblazoned on the cover of 20 October’s Economist. “Cry the Beloved the Country,” the caption says, over a picture of the striking miners with their sticks and pangas aloft. And the dreadful byline: “South Africa’s sad decline” The magazine’s Leaders and Briefing sections describe in detail the declining state of the nation. “Foreign investment is drying up… education is a disgrace… inequality has grown since Apartheid and the gap between the rich and the poor is now among the world’s largest…” – and so on and on. “South Africa,” it says, “is sliding downhill while much of the rest of the continent is clawing its way up.”

The respected Economist, with its rigorous research and impeccable journalism, chooses to expose our shame and the deterioration of our country on its front page. It even compares the present state of decline with a more positive view of conditions during the “loathsome Apartheid” years.

We cringe. It is like a family that has sheltered a pervert, or has hidden a crime, suddenly now out in the open: the whole world sees the extent of the shame spelled out in vivid reality.

To most of us it’s no surprise. We have learned to assimilate the pieces of bad news that come to us in a daily stream. This, however, is the full story in one vicious punch to the gut. Its impact must be riveting to international investors, already skittish about what’s going on in the world economy and being much more discerning about where they invest their clients’ decreasing funds. 

But it is overwhelming to us because a perceived failure of the country is also a perceived failure of ourselves. Although many don’t support the ANC and have little influence at all in the greater scheme of South Africa’s decline, we somehow feel responsible. We are co-dependent, and experience a sense of blame for the disgrace. What an embarrassment!

What will we say to our children and grandchildren who may one day ask: “Where were you? Where were you when the beloved country went down the tubes?”

A recent e-mail doing the rounds was a letter from Ann Paton, the widow of Alan Paton, author of Cry the Beloved Country. After several robberies and threats to her safety, Paton has decided, reluctantly, to leave her cherished life in South Africa and return to England. She is fraught with anguish and pain, but cannot keep her life together in South Africa any longer.

No dopamine here. No possible rush of brain chemistry to help us keep our heads up. There is just the choking feeling of anger and disappointment. There is also the paralysing reality that nothing of consequence can be done by those likely to read and be affected by the Economist story. “Remember,” you say, “this is a democracy, and you have a vote!” Yes, I have, and it means just about nothing. There is no representation and the electoral system will keep me from having any influence for the foreseeable future. In the face of the millions of poorly educated ANC supporters driven by misguided loyalties, the possibility of change is so remote as to be meaningless.

Most of us would support the miners striking for more pay. We all want a fair society and a reasonable living for everyone. But none of us want the violent ‘wildcat’ nature of the protest and the dreadful heavy-handedness of the way things are managed. What has happened to this country that was so bright with potential just a few years ago? Have we given up on our expectations?

I try to play the ‘happy game’ and to focus on positive changes like Clem Sunter does when he talks about the achievements of the ANC, but the sadness and the feelings of desolation just don’t leave me. DM


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