In 1992 Nelson Mandela returned from the World Economic Forum a changed man. In Mandela: The Authorised Biography, the statesman concedes: “They changed my views altogether … I came home to say: ‘Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalisation and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.’ ”
Today the World Economic Forum is again guiding South Africa and its political economy. In 2015, its founder Klaus Schwab invented the global slogan, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). It is “characterised by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries”, Schwab stated in his book of the same name.
This technical concept, designed by a master technocrat, introduces a significant dilemma. It predicts an unforeseen future for the human condition and warns that we must shape our own reality before it is shaped for us.
The South African political elite, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, have taken to this global slogan, recognising the technological revolution as critical to the national strategy. Ramaphosa recently appointed an advisory commission to “ensure that we effectively and with greater urgency harness the technological change in pursuit of inclusive growth and social development”. In his 2018 State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa confirmed that “our prosperity as a nation depends on our ability to take full advantage of rapid technological change”.
Although the imminent changes described by the 4IR will undoubtedly shape the world, foreign concepts have innate meaning and should not implicitly be transplanted on to South African soil. In the early 1990s democratic South Africa was especially impressionable to exterior meaning and truth. It was easily co-opted by the preferences of the triumphant West, whose soft power drove the appropriation of its values and ideas.
The South African national project became strained by allowing others to shape its reality. By adopting foreign concepts, instead of cultivating these locally, we confounded our modern national identity. Newborn South Africa bypassed the phenomenological process needed to discern itself.
The obsession with the 4IR prompts us to independently identify, articulate and endorse local slogans as part of an authentic national narrative.
Slogans are not empty. Slogans, as the word’s etymological Gaelic suggests, are battle cries. They arouse through repetition, are relatable and succinctly illustrate a situation. They inspire adoption, activating enterprise towards an aspired goal.
China is slogan country. For centuries public slogans have unified and guided the world’s largest nation. These programmatic injunctions have provided meaning and direction. Slogans have been pivotal in inspiring the Chinese people to achieve the greatest socioeconomic transformation of all time. Dissimilar to the West, where slogans sell consumer products, Chinese slogans are strategic tools that reflect the national condition and advance civil function.
Slogans such as the Chinese Dream aspire towards surmounting the Century of Humiliation, the period of national occupation and decay resolved by the 1949 revolution. The Chinese Dream serves the vision of a total national rejuvenation, transcending the humiliation by achieving global pre-eminence and comprehensive socioeconomic affluence by 2049.
The Chinese Dream transcends policy and ideology, it frees up the individual, encouraging instead of informing. It appeals to people’s personal as well as societal functions. It strives towards more than immediate gratification, invigorating the holistic fulfilment of their aspirations. It inspires present generations to overcome the past (Century of Humiliation) and pursue their personal, familial and national dreams.
Slogans have been central in South Africa’s history. Apartheid was the motive force that kept us fractured. It, too, was a slogan. Our democratic founding act was built upon an aspirational slogan. The Rainbow Nation realised its deliberative mission with the first nonracial elections. When the battles that slogans confront are won, these cries lose their appeal and become passé. This is seen in the antagonistic response often associated with the Rainbow Nation today. Contemporary South Africa requires honest introspection to produce an authentic message. Though it may appear savvy to rally around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this global concept is too vague and is not locally rooted.
Evidenced by the spectacle of the various unfolding commissions of inquiry, our national condition is conclusively one of state capture.
Ramaphosa appears to have a keen talent for effective slogans. Days after assuming power, he proclaimed in his first State of the Nation address that “a new dawn is upon us”. The New Dawn is not an appeal, but a claim that the darkness of the preceding night — which he later called the “nine lost years” — has been surmounted. The New Dawn presents the transcendence of the arrest, fixing the national gaze towards the future.
In the same speech, Ramaphosa strategically employed Hugh Masekela’s appeal of Thuma Mina (Send Me). In his song, Masekela sings that he wants to “be there when the people start to turn it around”. The people, not the leadership, are invoked to take deliberative action. By using Masekela’s words, Ramaphosa relates to the people of South Africa in their own language and through one of their beloved sons. “Send me” is a calculated call to popular action. Ramaphosa appeals to the nation to grant him an electoral mandate, sending him to the country’s highest office. He also calls on citizens of the nation to send themselves, personally adopting Masekela’s charge of fomenting a better tomorrow.
To inspire the advent of this new day, South Africa’s slogan-writers may best turn to the nation’s pre-eminent text. Crafted locally from intensive reflection, the South African Constitution, like the Chinese Dream, is aspirational. It declares an ambitious destination to strive towards. The South African dream, as prescribed by the Constitution, is the achievement of a sovereign, democratic state where human dignity is enshrined, equality is achieved and human rights and freedoms are advanced.
Klaus Kotzé is the AW Mellon-UCT postdoctoral research fellow, Centre for Rhetoric Studies, Law Faculty, University of Cape Town