Saturday, March 13, 2010

Our looming 100 day window of opportunity

An ancient Chinese proverb states - “Even the Gods cannot help those who do not seize opportunities”.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup (FWC), has ushered in a window of opportunity for all South Africans to seize with both hands! To put our best foot forward towards healing the old wounds of our tragic past. To reach out across the racial divide. To show our gratitude to the world for this gift of the hosting the FWC that cements our inclusion into the world of nations and has enormous potential to create buoyant economic conditions here in SA amidst a sea of recession that tightens its grip across the rest of the world.

Its a chance to recapture that Madiba spirit that constantly threatens to dissipate like the morning mist over Table Mountain, as we come to grips to the damage wreaked by apartheid on our social fabric. Another chance, in spite of our strained history, to warm up to each like that balmy breeze over the Indian Ocean. A golden opportunity to establish SA as a world class tourist destination to tourists who would otherwise not usually view South Africa as a holiday destination, or to business investors who may not be aware of the upward mobility of a burgeoning middle class previously shut out of our economic system.

In the last few decades, most of the world held their breath and from afar cautiously observed SA, as a petri-dish of human experimentation coming to grips with their false belief system of racial superiority. This caution turned to amazement through our ability to transcend past injustices, non-violently, through the power of forgiveness. Much of this was made possible by Madiba's vision that embodied the nobility of our human species.

However, recent developments in the media surrounding the FWC, revealed the divisive antics and harsh tones reminiscent of the old apartheid days of media manipulation that leaves one truly perplexed and ambivalent of the role of our media in an emerging democracy like ours. A recent spate of media reports, all within the span of a single week, simply served to further whip up fear and hysteria surrounding the biggest international sporting event in the history of Africa! At the risk of seeing the wheels fall off, even FIFA, had to step in, to implement stricter controls to keep renegade journalists on a short leash in an attempt to quash the hysteria that had the potential to spread like a veld fire. The most stunning aspect of this fiasco, is that most of these journalists and media organizations, are South African! International journalists seem to be much more responsible in using freedom of speech responsibly compared to our own journalists who see nothing wrong in screaming "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, or berating FIFA's judicious media controls as too draconian.

Where does this macabre form of premature schadenfreude - reveling in the misfortunes of others, come from? What makes Mandela and the majority of black South Africans embrace the rugby world cup as portrayed in the movie Invictus, while on the other hand many white South Africans spurn the 2010 WC and some even go as far as jinx this once in a lifetime event with their outlandish negativity?

Under the National Government during apartheid, all media was strictly monitored and controlled in ways that would even make the Chinese government blush. In order to lengthen the shelf-life of that poison called apartheid, the seed of fear had to be implanted into the limbic system of the white populace. Today we see some in the media, employing similar dirty tricks, craftily engineered to instill a sense of fear in potential tourists to our shores. The following sensationalized incidents, bordering on Internet hoaxes, created headlines in SA media:
1. "stab proof vests" by an imaginary UK based company.
2. etv's concocted "criminal interviews" where the go-between mysteriously "commits suicide".'s abuse of our freedom of press laws that guarantees protection of the sources to spread public hysteria is short-sighted and shameful.
3. International French journalist "Sophie Buillion" being "brutalized" while there was no coverage of this incident during that week on any of the reputable news media, including major French newspapers.

Another recent example of this hype designed to spread fear, is the "controversy" surrounding the vuvuzela, a unique South African creation. Suddenly the vuvuzela is now depicted as an "instrument of war" and seemingly "scientific" studies, subsequently refuted by established scientific organizations, claim that the vuvuzela damages one's hearing irreparably at a certain distance. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs, akin to pond scum, are capitalizing on this using fear based marketing to peddle costly ear-plug devices which promise to prevent "irreversible ear damage". Firstly, whats wrong with simple disposable ear-plugs, bought for a few cents for those sensitive to load noises and secondly why don't these con artists market these costly ear-plug devices at rock concerts - notorious for their ultra large booming speakers that have been one of the primary cause of tinnitus in the developed world.

Yet another damper to the FWC was the anti-competitive price-fixing practices of local airlines and hotels designed to price-gouge tourists, creating an additional sour tone to potential return tourists. It seems like sometimes free enterprise needs to be reigned in for the greater good of our society, for example, this is why ticket scalping is outlawed at venues in most countries and watchful eye of consumer organizations serve to keep order in free enterprise system that could so quickly go awry with unscrupulous businesses that seem to be rife in our nascent democracy.

We all know that rampant violent crime is a festering problem in our society, and has been so for the last decade, under the misguided leadership of the autocratic Mbeki regime. Its also understandable that some in our society want to leverage the FWC to get government to take firmer action against crime, but one wonders why crime has become this gargantuan, sensationalized issue during this FWC and not other international sporting events like rugby or cricket, also hosted in SA in the last decade. Also, in spite of herculean efforts in completing the facilities and transportation systems in time, some bloggers in our media continue to predict doom and gloom for the FWC and come up with even more creative ways to abuse our free speech by spreading misinformation and fear about our FWC - a once in a lifetime event in our country. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Football is perhaps the most international of all sports, with a thread that binds our world in the spirit of our common humanity and love of the game. Fortunately, these positive forces dwarf the ill will that lurks in the hearts of some our very own citizens. As Gandhi wisely reminded us to "be the change", its up each one to us to make it happen.

Just like a parent lovingly supports their kids sporting activities, so to, should our own citizens support the event by making some positive contribution:
  • Maybe attending or watching one of the matches with a friend from a different culture, religion or race.
  • Being hospitable and supportive to tourists.
  • Communicating with friends and relatives around the world e.g. via the web, to share the excitement generated by this event.
  • Building international business alliances with the exchange of ideas.
  • Attracting the attention of international students to consider South Africa as one of their study-abroad options.
  • Speak out against the naysayers and false prophets of doom and gloom, just as we spoke out against apartheid.
I'm sure there are many better suggestions out there, so don't by shy folks!

As South Africans, haven't we learned enough of the tragic lessons of this win-lose mindset of the architects of apartheid? So lets try playing a WIN-WIN game for a change!
Imagine the benefits of the exposure SA obtains as sports lovers all over the world direct their attention to the games for an entire month, being played the beautiful southern tip of Africa! Giving tourists a close-up glimpse of the striking beauty of the African countryside, its majestic wildlife and warm, gracious people is a marketing dream for most country's tourist boards and we should capitalize on this serendipity.

So regardless of how the FWC turns out for our team Bafana Bafana, the one sure thing is that, this is a turning point in our history where we are finally offered a seat at the table of the world of nations - a truly remarkable achievement for a young country still finding its feet after centuries of darkness. Remember, in the long run, a successful FWC guarantees that everyone wins in some way and this once in a lifetime opportunity for most South Africans, will be either be missed by short-sightedness or seized on by people with the foresight to create positive change in our broader community and the world around us. At last, a chance for us to show the world what that famous "southern hospitality" is all about!

[Published in Mail & Guardian - Thought Leader posted on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010]

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