Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Seeing the Wood for the Trees
A friend of mine, Muammil Sattar, recently moved to Munich to do a stint of work over there. We spoke earlier today about the German perceptions of South Africa, and I asked him to put what he told me down on email. Here it is:
"Munich is a wonderful city. It’s often been described as the most Northern city of Italy as a result of its vibrant café and outdoor culture, the pervasiveness of chicly dressed and proud inhabitants as well as inimitable surroundings that include some superb mountains and lakes.

These aspects of the city are enjoyed by all its inhabitants all the time. The city is incredibly welcoming and safe. The underground is the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. I’m so impressed with the ability to be completely mobile, in fact, that I have refused to buy a car. Further, when the weather is good, I get around by bike. And when I am feeling particularly healthy, I simply walk. In fact just last weekend I walked home from nightclub at 4 in the morning, on my own, lost in my thoughts of the night that had been, the only care I had being that I didn’t lose my bearing and get lost.

And this sort of lifestyle is in fact the norm in every Northern European city, and certainly for most of Europe in general. It’s a lifestyle I was initially exposed to in Holland, and partly in England. As wonderful as this lifestyle may be, South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, is by far the better pace to live. Most people I have spoken with, who are non-South African, agree with my sentiments. We have some problems, like all countries do, but these problems are manageable. At least I believe they are. And so did most Europeans.

At the emergence of our democracy certain risks were a great concern to Europeans. Political risk was the root of greatest concern, second only to economic risk. South Africa has certainly overcome these concerns with aplomb. Europeans became more eager to visit, invest in, produce from, trade with and generally consider South Africa when they realised that it politically and economically safe. Evidence of the ramping up of foreign investment in South Africa is ubiquitous. More Europeans visit South Africa year-on-year. Europe remains our most important trading partner. And many Europeans firms have set up shop in South Africa in recent years.

Europeans, however, are fast changing their tune about South Africa and one of its problems. And herein lies the crux of the matter. South Africa is no longer perceived as physically safe by Europeans. Granted, Europeans always understood that South Africa was not as safe as Europe, but it has not been an impossible impediment for them to overcome. I dare say, however, that it is on the brink of becoming a very real impediment to tourism in particular, but also investment. Most alarming to me has been the extent of the press on South Africa’s crime problem, and in particular, crime problems in Cape Town, our previously feted sanctuary of safety from a South African perspective. Spain and Morocco are seen as a much better alternative to South Africa. Travel Agents are following suit. One can now buy a 10 day excursion to South Africa, including flights, accommodation and breakfast at a 3 star hotel, for Euro 699. In January. Peak season. Whereas trips to Morocco and Spain, which is a tenth of the journey from Germany, by the way, during season can cost in the region of Euro 500.

And this simple point about holidaying ties in very closely with investment. Executives don’t like travelling to places they don’t enjoy, and particularly don’t like travelling to places that are not safe. I’ve yet to come across an executive who has been chomping at the bit recently to fly out to South Africa to ‘check up on things’. A colleague has just (today) cancelled a booked holiday to Cape Town and will be heading to Morocco with his family. He points out that when the wife of a possible future president can be hijacked when dropping her kids off at school, it’s time to consider other places as better recreational destinations.

I tried to make the point that Johannesburg is miles from Cape Town, but he’d have none of it. Great weather and beaches, coupled with great value for money count for nought when compared to peace of mind. And given the lifestyle of Europeans, this is an important component of their decision-making process. We as Capetonians need to understand it. It's the one thing that we must get right. As soon as possible. Especially as the world is slowly focusing on us more readily as the world cup approaches.

I’m uncertain what we should do, as South Africans, and particularly as Capetonians. I’d love to hear your thoughts."