Hungry for home

So they leave out the soaring crime rates, daily charges of corruption and the crumbling state of public services. Somebody has to look on the bright side of life, right? Mandy Rossouw finds out why South Africa so badly needs the good news

As white middle-class South Africa was spiralling into a national depression and those who weren’t on the next flight to Perth whined in high-brow newspapers and at northern suburbs dinner parties, Stuart Pennington, a business consultant with an eye for an opportunity, became gatvol (fed up) with the doom and gloom and kicked off a revolution.

In 2002 Pennington put out a coffee-table book simply called South Africa: The Good News. It told stories of how good we have it here in the rainbow nation. It recited profound statistics of a booming economy and tales of increased access to education across all socio-economic sectors. It was, in essence, a message to the naysayers, a little something to remind them to have a look on the bright side.

Pennington’s book sprouted various sequels, all sponsored by First National Bank. In South Africa 2014: The Story of Our Future, contributions came in from then president Thabo Mbeki and his former sidekick Smuts Ngonyama, singing the nation’s praises.

From these glossy pages, a website was born to “feed the great hunger for good news”.

And we were hungry.

With the help of FNB, which has used the books as corporate gifts, Pennington sold more than 80 000 copies. But it’s the website that has taken the good news to epic proportions. Pennington’s gets a whopping 70 000 unique viewers a month, according the website’s editor, Ian McDonald.

Here you can read about why South Africa is unique (Nelson Mandela, rooibos and boerekos). You can also read a glass half-full analysis of the recent state of the nation address by President Kgalema Motlanthe, which focuses on how positive he is that we will overcome crime, corruption and the global financial crisis. The analysis points to Motlanthe’s appeal to South Africans to “draw solace” from the fact that government itself initiates most corruption investigations. The kind of titbits that help us sleep better at night.

Trained as a journalist who later worked for an NGO that went bust, McDonald sees the industry as a business that, if it does its job well, will have no purpose anymore.

“We hope to get to a point where we will work our way out of business, but we still have a long way to go before we get there,” he says.

One of the website’s journalists, Lindy Mtangana, admits to getting flak from her peers about the job.

“People think it is not real journalism,” Mtangana says. “There is a lot of scepticism about it, but I don’t find it limiting. We have a mandate here. We contribute to nation-building and democracy and that is part of a journalist’s job. If you are just a watchdog, the way mainstream media is, you give people only one way of looking at things.”

In a recent article Mtangana offered the good-news version of the Gautrain. According to one of the project managers in the story, the train will “move communities” to a better future. Forgotten are such tedious facts as the project is running behind schedule, the train will be too expensive for most South Africans, the unfortunate masses still have to make do with the undependable and dangerous national rail system and that Gautrain’s managing company, Bombela, was accused of irregularities in the awarding of tenders.

Instead we hear of the orange-overalled Gautrain workers who burst into song when the train pulled into Midrand station during its media launch and how the Gautrain is working its magic on passersby who stop and stare.

And the Good News triumphs again
Enter Athol Williams, who launched his good-news radio show State of the Nation on ClassicFM last year.

Williams’s show was aimed at debunking myths about South Africa with credible information. His audience: the white middle class. After all, they are the ones who need convincing that South Africa is not that bad.

“White people see the new South Africa as having taken away one toy after they were used to having many, while black people now have one toy while before they had none,” Williams said.

Although it was a necessary move to correct the wrongs of the past, black economic empowerment did little to foster nation-building, says Williams.

“Whites are feeling disenfranchised,” he says. “It is dangerous that Afrikaners are so quiet, that they are not participating.”

Are they planning a revolt?

“No, but they have experience and money and should participate and contribute more. If they are so quiet, they’re missing out.”

Williams himself is no stranger to the grass-is-greener hypothesis. After growing up on the Cape Flats, he spent years living the good life in Boston, New York and London where he worked as a business executive for international companies such as Rio Tinto, Bain & Co and Old Mutual.

Today he serves as a non-executive director for Rand Merchant Bank.

On his return in 2002 he found that the country had changed in more ways than just white news anchors being swapped for black ones.

“Things have changed, but there is no real source of information about what’s happening. People know bits and pieces but that’s it.”

And this vacuum, he says, gave rise to gossip and myths that paint South Africa as nothing more than a crime-ridden, corruption-infested country with potholes and power outages. And all that bad news meant that his audience was, well, depressed.

“They were all saying ‘I’m unhappy, but I don’t know why’. The media has the biggest influence on the psyche, but even as people we don’t tell the positive stories, we tell the negative ones. I don’t say to my wife what a nice day I had at work, I tell her about the fucker who messed things up.”

The point, he says, was to start a campaign of “positive indoctrination”.

“If I can show you the stats and facts instead of the emotional issues, that can help lift the depression.”

But the good news proved to be a harder sell for Williams. The show was taken off air at the end of the year because the radio station didn’t want to pay for an executive producer and Williams needs his day job more than his moonlighting mission. He hasn’t given up his quest, though. Williams is shopping the idea around so he can get the good news back on the air.

It was the national state of depression that led to Alan Knott-Craig Junior’s Don’t Panic — a good-news bible, which was published last year for South Africans who needed to see the glass half full.

Knott-Craig is the head of iBurst, an internet service provider linked to Vodacom. An email to his employees two years ago urging them “not to panic” gave rise to the book, which is a compilation of feel-good contributions from various prominent people living in South Africa.

One of the contributors was Martine Schaffer, who heads the Homecoming Revolution, an NGO aimed at helping South Africans abroad to return home.

Schaffer swapped South Africa for Britain in the late Eighties but returned in 2002 after being retrenched from her marketing job in London.

Her organisation offers people advice and information on South Africa. It’s hailed in many quarters — especially those into the good news — but comes under enormous criticism from others.

“For some people, no matter what you say it will never be enough,” she says. “They will say things like ‘you can’t picnic in Emmarentia the way you used to in the Seventies’. Now what do you say to that?”

But maybe the efforts by the good-news brigade — in concert with a global meltdown — are starting to pay off finally. Those who were getting ready to sell up and take off are now rethinking things a bit.

“The global financial crisis has convinced many South Africans to come home,” says Schaffer. “But even before that the declining education standard in the United Kingdom and the rise of gangsterism were starting to show people that the grass on the other side is not that green. People are re-evaluating. South Africa is suddenly a potential option they could work with. They realise the crime and other problems haven’t gone away, but now they feel they can live with it.”

And they don’t even have to be scared to watch the late-night news anymore. There is always the other option. They can just turn on the good news.

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Mandy Rossouw
Guest Author

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