Monday, 3 September 2007

Despite confusion in the political world, a time to build hope

With the arrival of spring 2007, is it not time to encourage and engender a more positive mood among South Africans?

Although calendar demarcation lines such as a "new year" (and decades for that matter) are artificial markers of time, Spring is much more real, grounded in meteorological reality. Maybe we can use nature’s gear change as leverage to spur on the shift in mood as we enter the last four months of the year.

Despite the problems and challenges of developing countries - and ours in particular - how does one contemplate the future without a bucket or two of optimism? Without hope, we remain trapped within the past, and within the limits it imposes. Our thinking becomes narrow and we run low in generosity and openness to others.

Being optimistic is a choice. We can opt to look at things differently. Indeed, we can choose the lens we want; we can decide what must be in the frame. This is applicable as much at a personal level as at the broader level of social awareness.

Of course, any talk of a so-called positive mind, conjures up the image of the motivational speaker, which in turn provokes sniggers among the skeptics. Motivational speakers are renowned for framing their positive outlook in terms of the maxim: you can be whatever you want to be. Of course, you need to make sense of such a sweeping claim: what it really means is that - by shifting one’s perspective and refocusing your energies - you can always do better. Or you might take it to mean that – as I heard one motivational speaker confess – you can be what you want to be, provided that you can build a credible bridge to that goal.

Hope is not just pie in the sky; it is a life-giving force. In her edited book, Hope: new philosophies for change, Sydney-based Mary Zournazi ropes in several leading philosophers to explore the “politics of hope” and “revolutionary hope”. For her, hope is not just “the desire for things to come” but “the drive or energy that embeds us in the world” and makes us a vibrant part of what she calls the ecology of life.

In the current context, where politics momentarily seems rudderless and many politicians appear estranged from their constituencies, being hopeful and optimistic means asking: how can we as a country emerge from this stronger and more aligned with each other in terms of broad national goals. What stance can we take and what actions, responses and comments can we make that would tilt us in such a direction?

The country’s brand statement “Alive With Possibilities” can be instructive here. The core argument in the brand statement is that because of who we are (personality), what we have (attributes) and what we do (capabilities), we offer the world (anyone who engages with use) unique new possibilities. This line of thinking does not entail that we close our eyes to problems, challenges and missed opportunities; what it means is that if we believe in the country and can see what is possible (based on how we overcame the odds in the past), we will work harder to make this democracy better and more effective.

We have many things going for us. Sustained economic growth that raises the possibilities of improving the lot of the many who live in poverty and deprivation. South Africa’s robust constitution that is backed up by key institutions. We are gearing up for a Soccer World Cup that will give visitors a unique experience: the best of soccer coupled with easy-to-reach beaches, game parks, cultural tourism and some of the most scenic spots in the world. We also boast a diverse people with a rich cultural life.

Of course, the skeptics and the cynics who seemingly include large numbers of South Africans, will look at these aspects and argue that they are not enough. Yet at the same time, researchers tell us that many more South Africans feel good about being citizens of Mzansi. According to a report (29 Aug 2007) on the research results of the World Values Survey, 96% of South Africans are proud of their country. And while 5 years ago, 83% of white people viewed themselves as proud of SA, that figure has since jumped to 95%.

The lead researcher, Dr Hennie Kotze, ascribes the good results to “positive socio-economic trends”. The survey also found that, although a substantial number are concerned about crime, South Africans' confidence in state institutions had increased by 11%.

So despite the glum mood on the surface, beneath it all, South Africans clearly recall where they have come from and their basic long term perspective remains good. Let us build on these robust foundations.

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