Apr 08

South Africa – Becoming A Winning Nation (Again) 30 Years Into Democracy

An article by Ian Kilbride, published on 8 April 2024.

During the memorable 2023 rugby world cup, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus infamously screamed at his team, “We’re the only f**king thing that works in South Africa!”. I found the world’s greatest rugby coach’s foul-mouthed rant at once jolting, jarring, hilarious, sobering and unintentionally thought provoking.

I wrote before the 2023 rugby world cup that I believed the Springboks would retain the Webb Ellis trophy and provided reasons for my confidence. Admittedly I aged during the final minutes of the semi-final and finals, but my reasons for confidence were validated by the displays of sheer courage and determination that saw the Boks over the line. The Bok’s gutsy victory not only lifted the Webb Ellis trophy, but also that of the nation for weeks afterwards.

But back to reality – is Rassie right and as a nation can we learn from this coaching genius and from the boys in green and gold?

It is far too simplistic of course to believe that a nation’s problems can be solved by emulating a sports team, no matter how successful, but a few fundamental lessons can be taken on board and applied to our country going forward if we are to become a winning nation again.

The first is to agree that we actually want to be a winning nation. In other words, we must develop a shared desire to succeed, particularly in a highly competitive global environment. But what in fact is a winning nation?

Innumerable global indices track what it means for a nation to be successful. The most common measures of course are economic growth, per capita wealth and human development, others track competitiveness and innovation. Recently, more aesthetic tables measure a nation’s attractiveness, goodness and individual happiness.

Thirty years into democracy, South Africa is struggling when measured against all these global benchmarks, particularly relative to its middle-income peers. So, a key lesson from Rassie’s playbook for success is national and individual honesty. Unless we are brutally honest about the depth of problems we face and take full responsibility for them, we are destined to delude ourselves with self-congratulatory statements about avoiding recession through resilience, when in fact our economy is broken in many ways. A bit like the losing All Blacks, the blame game doesn’t work. We allowed corruption to happen in front of our very eyes and failed to sin bin or red card the culprits. When politicians, businesspeople, civil servants, or crime bosses bend or break the rules, they must be removed from the field of play.

Another lesson we can learn from the golden Boks is that as a nation we have to play to our considerable strengths and in our own style. Sure, we can and must constantly learn lessons from the best and benchmark ourselves against the success of others, this is the essence of successful competition, but we are not the All Blacks, Wallabies or Welsh Dragons. The problem we need to overcome, and quickly as nation, is to agree on our national strengths, design a winning plan and implement it!

In this regard, I disagree profoundly with legendary Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter in his diagnosis and prognosis for a winning nation, who contended that a nation’s natural endowments are not fundamental to success. Rassie recognised from the outset that Springbok success is based fundamentally on its natural power game. Likewise, it is incontrovertible that South Africa’s natural mineral endowments have been at the core of its economy and will remain so for decades to come. Where Porter is absolutely correct, however, is identifying sectoral excellence and innovation as key to national competitiveness. Nobody watching an Erasmus coached Springbok team can deny that competitive tactical innovation has been the difference between success and failure.

So, thirty years into our young democracy, what are the steps that South Africa is crying out for to turn us back into world beaters and make Rassie think twice about ‘dissing’ his own country?

The first is to agree on national competitiveness objectives. We must identify and agree on where we realistically want to be in five- and ten-years’ time across all global rankings of importance.

Second, design, draft and agree on the national competitiveness plan to achieve these goals.

Third, elect, appoint and support the national sectoral leadership (government, business and civil society) to achieve this.

Fourth, deliver, co-ordinate and apply the resources (economic and human) required to achieve our national competitiveness goals.

Fifth, involve all sectors of society in the achievement of our national competitive goals. National success cannot be delivered by elites in favour of the privileged few. Our overarching national competitiveness objective must be to ensure the benefits of winning are enjoyed by all.  

Sixth, celebrate success. Thirty years into democracy, we are a nation weighed down by failure, corruption, cynicism and a lack of national confidence. Upon achieving our future successes, no matter how incremental, we must rekindle the spirit of the Boks and learn to celebrate together as a winning nation. You too Rassie!