South Africa has a story to tell. It’s a heroic story, but it often doesn’t feel that way. That’s probably because we’ve forgotten the journey that myths and fables follow.
American academic Joseph Campbell studied myths and fables in great depth, to discover that heroes are ordinary people who start with a quest. They are mentored along the way as they embark on this great adventure, but what makes them heroic is how they endure incredible tribulation and emerge absolutely resolute.
If this sounds familiar, it should be — it’s our lived reality. We had the old African heroes, the liberators led by the Mandelas and the Sisulus, then we were faced with the anti-heroes; the kleptocrats who captured the state.
In terms of the trajectory of the narrative, we’re at the bottom end of the curve. We are emerging from this tribulation, not quite clear of it yet, but definitely through the worst of it.
The time has come for the new heroes to stand up. Cyril Ramaphosa is one. Pravin Gordhan is another. But there are so many out there. I had the privilege of speaking to some of the mid-level managers at SARS recently and I was blown away by their commitment to make a difference to rebuild what had once been one of the finest receivers of revenue in the world. They’re heroes.
So, who is a hero? It’s anyone who stands up for what is right, especially when the cost is high. A hero is not someone who takes to the streets to protest or who signs a petition, but someone who stands around the braai and calls out their nearest and dearest for spouting racist crap and then announces to all and sundry, “I don’t stand for that”.
That’s real heroism because the consequences are immediate and can be quite dire, but it’s also the place where you will have the most impetus.
As a country, we need a conceptual framework around what heroism is, which will allow us to identify who those heroes are. As a business school, what we have to do is to be careful about what heroes we are lionising. If we lionise Gordon Gekko and the Wall Street rapists, if we lionise KPMG or the corporate practices of the 60s and 70s, we are not being progressive, but actually collusive. We have the same problem as a nation. Far too many people think of the VBS scandal in terms of Robin Hood, not for the brazen industrial-scale plunder that it was.
The new African heroes are people who take a risk, whether it be personal, political, professional or financial in order to build something they believe in for the good of others. They exist at all levels of our society; in our communities, in our workspaces, among our friends.
You and I might even be those heroes.
It doesn’t matter who we are, where we come from, what our colour is, our class or our religious creed, the fact is that whether we are those heroes or are not, now we have that opportunity to be heroes.
There’s never been a more important time to do that. We need the framework of what the new African hero is because it allows us to define our quest and not be put off by the professionals who want to distract us with the Goebbels-esque fake news and anti-rhetoric, without counting the VBS apologists and the legions of lawyers forever throwing up legal detours.
When you look at Ramaphosa, he’s defined his quest, he has a plan, a roadmap and he’s sticking to it. People clamour all the time for action and that’s perhaps our greatest problem; the great thinker Hans Rosling decried humanity’s propensity for dramatic thinking in his seminal book Factfulness.
What we should be doing instead is taking a long, hard and dispassionate look at the problem. We should be like scientists trying to get to the root of the ill, which is why what Ramaphosa is doing makes so much sense.
He has a very clear methodology, systemic and systematic. It’s a clearly thought out process of altering the balance and cleaning out things and instead of ripping out the cancer, he’s building up the immune system, which you can see by the way he’s standing back and letting the state agencies do the work they’ve been actively prevented from doing for so long.
We all need to get into a habit of deeper thinking. We need to break this uniquely South African bipolar psychosis where we are either down in the doldrums or insanely overjoyed. The truth of the matter is that the trend in terms of dealing with poverty, education, health and even democracy in Africa is on an upward curve and you can track this over several decades.
The problem is that we see the poverty all around us, so we have no dispassion, we can’t see the bigger picture. That’s not the end of it though, there are plenty of people hellbent on ensuring we are deflected by all these things; they want to absorb our clarity by stoking up emotions and getting us angry.
We need to develop this discipline of clarity. We need to be able to see the people who are doing the right thing irrespective of their background or their colour — and acknowledge them as the heroes they are. We need to get behind them.
If we look at Ramaphosa, there’s a quiet but unshakeable resolve and a very slow, but inexorable momentum that is building. There is an unshakeable resolve and a very slow, inexorable momentum about what he’s doing. The net result of that inexorable force is implacable intent.
For far too long, we have allowed ourselves to be distracted.
We need to become less excitable and find the same deep resolve, that same implacable intent, underpinned by the realisation that the heroes’ journey that South Africa faces isn’t the exciting rollercoaster of the past, this is a slow trudge. It’s not for the millennials, but for the mature adults with the quiet resolve to go the whole way to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.
So, what is that challenge? What is the quest of the heroes’ journey? It’s simple: To reduce the Gini co-efficient, that scarlet letter on our collective foreheads, and to create education that works, that delivers thinking and productive members of society. Our challenge is to build an inclusive society not just for us, but for our children and our children’s children.
There’s a quest worth fighting for. Mandela and Sisulu thought so too. It’s our turn now. DM
Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.