We cannot deny that we have made extraordinary progress since our first democratic elections. Yet one is simultaneously annoyed by the voices of pessimism and alarmed by the apathy with which so many approach the hazards we face as we approach the next decade of freedom.
Looking back at the Pick n Pay Group in those years, it is all too clear how apartheid impacted negatively on the quality of life of our employees, crippled productivity, closed foreign markets and created an environment of community conflict in which corporate progress was impossible.
South Africa today is a far better place than it was then. We live in a country that is governed not by the absolute edicts of Cabinet ministers, but by the entrenched principles of a progressive constitution. If we greeted democracy with high expectation, our initial hopes were not dashed. 1994 was followed by a period of unprecedented creativity and innovation. Much was expected of us, and under the unifying influence of President Mandela, much was delivered.
It is a pity that the achievements of government in providing essential services, creating a welfare system and restoring a sense of human dignity to the previously marginalised has become so politically contested as parties vie to claim the kudos for such progress. Widespread community protests, opportunistic populists and self-serving perversity all combine to conceal the positive side of the balance sheet of the past two decades.
Of course, it would be equally disingenuous to deny that in the face of these advances, there has never been a more manifest need for concerned South Africans to rally to their defence. But when society withdraws from that engagement of active citizenry and cower silently behind ‘non-political’ curtains of culture, religion or language, we are abandoning the field to those who would seize the state and its institutions for self-enrichment.
Nelson Mandela’s concept of the Rainbow Nation has all but faded, except in moments of national celebration. The concept was predicated on the theory that light was made up of many colours. But the long walk to freedom is in danger of being mired by a focus on myopic interests. We forget these leadership lessons at our peril.
South Africans of all walks of life have shown that they are capable of achieving extraordinary things. In 2014 it cannot be too much to hope that we can again summon up that critical patriotism that we so successfully invoked to nudge society, government and opposition to a better future for all.
(Pick n Pay Chairman)