Picture: 123RF/HONGQI ZHANG
Picture: 123RF/HONGQI ZHANG

Dear Tony, I am writing in response to your open letter, "Challenge to Adrian Gore", in the FM of November 22.

To clarify, the issues you raise in your letter formed the foundation of my argument. My call to arms at the Discovery Leadership Summit was not in spite of our problems as a country — like service delivery, which you rightly mention — but rather because of them. In addition, the plea to focus on positive signals was not to the exclusion of negative signals, which would be naive, but to focus on positive signals as well as the negative ones. Allow me to explain.

Global research shows that we universally suffer from "declinism" — the belief that our country and public life are on an irreversible downhill trajectory and that the future will undoubtedly be worse than the past and present (see Ipsos Mori’s "Perils of Perception" global study).

The same research shows that we believe this in spite of facts to the contrary, driven largely by our stubborn ignorance about the way national development indicators have actually improved (everything from crime to teenage pregnancy). The research also shows that South Africans suffer this acutely: relative to the facts, we are the most irrationally pessimistic country in the world.

Why does this matter?

Subscribing to this declinist narrative leads to dangerous consequences.

First, we don’t see our country’s progress, and there has been plenty.

As an example, our GDP is 2.5 times the size it was in 1994 on a dollar basis, formal housing increased by 131% from 1996 to 2016, new HIV infections went down 60% from 1999 to 2016, and the murder rate per 100,000 dropped 50% from 1994 to 2017.

Linked to this, we undermine our size and relevance when we ought not to. Our provinces square up against other countries in terms of GDP. And our economy is substantial: in terms of stocks traded in 2017 (by billion US dollars), SA trumps the Middle East and North Africa region, Singapore and Norway; and it holds 82% of the pension fund assets in Africa, 18 times that of its second-ranked peer, Nigeria.

Second, we erroneously perceive our problems as insoluble anomalies.

By virtue of the fact that the problems of the day change — HIV/Aids, power crises, land expropriation and so on — they cannot be insoluble. We tend to address them, albeit in a messy way at times.

The danger herein is that attitude drives fundamentals, not the other way around.

The effect of the above is that we start perceiving our country and its economy as risky, and we avoid investing, when the opposite should be the case.

Rooted in science

Behavioural economics tells us we are doubly as motivated by potential loss as we are by potential gain. So if we are to ever solve our country’s problems, which are real and substantive, we can’t, ironically, obsess myopically about what we perceive to be the negatives. We need to have a sense of what’s at risk — a future worth losing — and this means seeking out positive signals as well and integrating them into our perspectives and decision-making.

This argument isn’t soft or fluffy. It is rooted in science. It also isn’t delusional. The falsehood lies in believing that seeking out only negative signals breeds collaboration and a sense of urgency to solve our issues.

This was at the core of my plea. Leadership is about challenging the cognitive bias that we are doomed, and about infusing our national and public narrative with a sense of hope, without being impervious to our issues but because of the critical need to address them.

Gore is CEO of Discovery. This is a response to a letter by Tony Ball, published in the FM of November 22-28