Unleash the power of positive speech

28 May 2013

Phumla Williams‘Talking your book’ is an expression that is popular in financial circles. It describes advocating an investment position that, if true, would end up making money.

Business executives tend to use it at every available opportunity as they understand the power their words have on bolstering their company’s investments.

It could sometimes explain why a share price experiences a sudden meteoritic rise. The same principle holds true for countries; how they are reflected in conversations determine their value.

All of us, as a shareholder in South Africa Inc, have a vested interest in talking up country’s book to position it in a globally competitive environment.

When South Africa prospers we all stand to benefit, and therefore should rally behind the country in every conversation. Our words are currency for the country’s image and in growing a positive mind-set among South Africans and the world.

In this year’s State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma called on all South Africans to “put South Africa first”. He said: “All of us have a patriotic duty and responsibility to build and promote our country.”

It starts with how we speak about matters of national importance or comment on issues that could have an impact on our reputation.

Social media, in particular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, instantly beam every word - good or bad - across the globe.

It is not a call to adopt a head in the sand approach or for uncritical reflection. In fact no one can take away the right to criticise; it is protected under the right to freedom of expression in our Constitution.

It is about being conscious of how we articulate a particular view on national issues. It’s also a realisation that the rhetoric and grandstanding to score cheap points is a luxury our country cannot afford.

We need to constantly think how our words could be interpreted by investors or investment analysts sitting in major investment capitals.

Investment analysts look only at the factors that create risks and will seldom give a country the benefit of doubt. They seek consistency and cohesion when making their investment decisions.

Reflecting on the need for a common front President Zuma stated: “We should speak from the same script, saying that South Africa is open for business, and South Africa is the best destination for any investor who is serious about returns on their investment.”

That script can be further supported by the results of the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Survey, released earlier this year. It rated South Africa first out of more than 100 countries in respect of its legal rights, regulations of securities exchanges; and reporting and auditing standards.

South Africa was also ranked second in the availability of financial services, third in financing equity markets and 15th in quality of air transport infrastructure. These rankings highlight the sound business infrastructure for those who want to invest and are already invested in the economy.

Furthermore, when our gains over the last 19 years of democracy are deliberately ignored it damages our image.

Over our short democratic journey we have already accomplished much as a country.

The 2011 census demonstrated how our social spending has helped change lives, More than 36 per cent of households have access to free clean water, 26 per cent have access to free basic electricity and 23 per cent have free sanitation.

Our dialogue needs to be fair, less acrimonious and more constructive, so that we can become part of the change we want to see. Moreover, criticism without solutions stagnate our growth as a country.

The government appreciates constructive criticism that assists in governance and improving people’s lives.

We understand that as a young democracy there will always be contested areas that we need to deal with as part of a national dialogue that contributes to our development.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, in his address to Parliament's standing committee on finance earlier this month, called for a new narrative.

He said: “We can speak a language that on the one hand allows us to debate our different views, but on the other hand projects a national positive narrative.”

In reply to the debate on his State of the Nation Address in February, President Zuma told the National Assembly: “We can disagree on as many issues as we want to, but we have to find issues where we put South Africa and our people first.”

It is indeed possible to do so, if we decide to put the country first and act in the national interest.

South Africans are a proud people, the findings from the November’s Markinor Khayabus study indicated that the overwhelming majority (87 per cent) of respondents were proud to be South African.

It is time for every proud South African to make their voice heard and challenge those who would drag our country down in a negative narrative.

Our National Development Plan (NDP) offers an opportunity for united action because it has the support of South Africans across the political and cultural spectrum.

The plan allows every South African to rise above sectional interests and with maturity pull together to take our country forward. It offers us a new way of doing things and a new culture so that by 2030 we can say that we have arrived at the South Africa we all envisaged.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of freedom next year, we must instil a common thread of patriotism. It is time to avoid the easy road of trivialities and unnecessary criticism. Let us put our money where our mouth is by committing to support the NDP and talking up South Africa.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)