Thursday 1 November 2012

Faith Leaders' Role in Shaping Perceptions, Addressing Poverty

Here are two recent opinion pieces, carried in The Star and The Sunday Independent.

Faith leaders can shape perceptions

The Star, October 24 2012 at 09:00am

For many countries, the need for nation branding on the world stage has become a major imperative in recent years. Whether stimulated by the need to pursue individual national objectives of trade and investment, or to support specific tourism promotion initiatives, positioning a country’s brand has never been more important.

With the backdrop of the recent events in Marikana that have projected our country in a bad light, it is crucial that all of us, including members and leaders of various faith persuasions, ask ourselves what role we are playing to position SA as a country which can still attract much needed investments from all over the world.

Positioning a country for investment purposes among others requires the active participation and support of all those decision-makers, opinion-formers and leaders in the country who are committed to spreading the positive word. This does not for a minute mean denial of the negative.

South Africa is a unique, progressive and caring nation that is open for business and ready to welcome the world to its shores. It needs consistent and constant messaging through a range of powerful global platforms, delivered by voices of authority, trust and knowledge, in order to reach the hearts and minds of those who need to change their perceptions.

In the world of global business, corporations would take the approach of focusing solely on their strengths to take attention away from any perceived weaknesses, however in the case of nation branding, a country brand is about positioning it in the best possible light while acknowledging that it has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. This is when unified voices of authority and trust come into their own when working to position SA’s nation brand on the global stage, and none more so than the voices of the country’s faith leaders.

There is a definitive role to be played by SA’s faith leaders in terms of contributing to the positioning of SA to the world and helping to shape perceptions of the country in the hearts and minds of diverse global audiences. Such a nation branding role would reflect the important and unique roles played by SA’s faith leaders in national life and also reflect a distinctly different perspective from the corporate or government voice in positioning the country on the global stage.

Faith leaders have the capacity to recognise the intrinsic, unique features of our country’s essential character and to differentiate it from every other country in the world. Through its rich traditions, the diversity of its people, its powerful history and heritage and its unique natural resources, SA has a unique story to tell.

Faith-based organisations and leaders have a powerful, non-partisan voice with which to convey good-news stories as well as bad news that have the capacity to express and amplify South Africa’s nation-brand in a non-commercial way, but focus on the planet and people. This in turn will dovetail with other complementary national branding initiatives seeking to percolate good-news stories.

Another important role to be played by SA’s faith leaders in positioning the country globally is to promote a spirit of inclusivity and openness between faith institutions and the international press and broadcast media. This will certainly improve relationships and the way that the country is portrayed in the global media environment. Faith leaders are well positioned to stimulate positive and meaningful dialogue in the media which support unifying nation brand themes and keep pushing country values that support South Africa’s strategic nation building position in the global marketplace.

The voices and messages of the country’s faith leaders ensure that accurate news and positive images of the country are proactively portrayed to enhance and support the overall national strategic positioning, while at the same time avoiding blatant distortions, manipulation or attempts to control press and media relationships, as in the fear of the secrecy bill.

Finally, faith leaders can assume an important ambassadorial role as that of enablers and facilitators. Through a process of advocacy and thought leadership, they can become a trusted and authoritative voice, spreading powerful news and messages about South Africa when travelling and participating in events across the world. They can shape more informed perceptions of the country on the part of overseas visitors and delegations of foreign faith leaders, providing accurate news, images and updates on new, progressive developments in the country. In turn, those visiting the country will take back to their own nations and peoples an informed perception of SA as a nation on the move in the global marketplace.

However, it must be recognised that with a more proactive role on the part of faith leaders in the positioning of South Africa, there comes social responsibility.

South Africa’s image in the global marketplace can also be negatively influenced by domestic issues and events that garner the wrong kind of global media and public attention, for example with the recent Marikana mine conflict.

This story was carried for many days around the world by a plethora of global media outlets, all reflecting poorly on South Africa’s image through their coverage of the tragic situation that unfolded. There was an opportunity missed by the country’s faith-based leaders, with the exception of a few from the SACC and other churches, to publicly show the world that they can play an active role in helping to reduce conflict and address the critical needs of society through a multicultural and interreligious approach that espouses religious tolerance and a shared concern for humanity.

Enlightened faith leaders and scholars of all faiths have a key role to play in situations such as the Marikana mine conflict.

Their advocacy and wisdom can influence political leaders and ordinary citizens alike. Their teaching and guidance can inspire people to new levels of responsibility, commitment and public service, and by their example, they can promote interfaith dialogue and bridge the chasms of ignorance and misunderstanding.

This is as much a factor in the process of successful nation building and the dispelling of uninformed perceptions of SA in the global marketplace, as any other marketing campaign or media exercise devised to encourage visitors and investment.
At the end of the day we have to answer the question on whether faith-based organisations have critically engaged with South Africa over the last 20 years to cement the fundamentals that can create sustainable stability necessary for investments to keep flowing, as well as flourishing, for the benefit of the poorest of the poor. Let’s play our part in holding up SA as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden all over the world.

Conditions for miners is sub-human

October 28 2012 at 02:37pm

One of the crucial issues facing SA is the dehumanising poverty levels of the majority of our population. Last week, as we marked World Poverty Day, the horrendous statistics of people living below the poverty line across the world were revealed. Closer to home, the last few weeks have put the mining sector in the spotlight and pointed to the fact that we, as a nation, must pay more attention to the critical question of economic redress as a precondition for fighting poverty.

The conditions of employment in the mining industry are in all honesty sub-human. In the wake of the Marikana tragedy, I was moved to write to the president to once again underline the question of urgent action to ensure that the underlying economic questions are addressed once and for all.

US president Franklin D Roosevelt, in his second inaugural address, said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” This is the challenge that has been thrown up by the strikes that have afflicted that industry in particular, placing on the national discourse the morality of exorbitant bonuses for bosses and a pittance for workers who risk their lives every day to dig up the metals that are a source of riches for the few.

My heart is sore, and my spirit is grieving after visiting some of the mining areas, especially in the Northwest area. It felt as if the land was crying out to me, deep in my soul, saying, “All is not well, all is not well.” It felt like the calm before the storm, the eye of the hurricane. That part of North-West province teeters on a knife edge. The dire state of everything from living conditions to the issues in the mining community, stirred up revulsion inside me. This is the stuff from which revolution is far too easily made, if we allow it. Whether in the mines or anywhere else, living and working conditions that – 18 years after the coming of democracy – still deliver neither human dignity nor economic justice, have become a cancer spreading across our country.

Poverty and its consequences are clearly portrayed in scripture as evil. And this evil all too often arises from structural deficiencies rooted in moral failings. Of course, the problems can be complex. If there were simple, easy answers to poverty, to inequality, to unemployment, someone somewhere would have found them by now. This is why we need good research on strategies to overcome poverty and inequality. This is why we need comprehensive policy initiatives like the National Development Plan. But more important, we need a serious and urgent commitment to implement pledges that have been made since the dawn of the mining charter.

Those discussions recognised that the conditions under which mine workers worked were unacceptable. That situation still remains. We have not been true to the spirit of many of the policies passed in the past 18 years. Indeed the tragedy of Marikana did not come from nowhere. It came about because we have been content to let things slide. They have slid in policy-making and implementation; in attitudes that allow economic inequalities to grow; in acceptance of high and low-level corruption, and in ineffectual implementation of good governance and the rule of law. They have slid in the worsening trust between government and citizens, politicians and people.

In the midst of all this, trouble fermented in the mining sector in particular, and gave rise to the tragedy that shocked the whole world and cast all of us in a bad light. It is, as Mamphela Ramphele has said, above all a failure of leadership: in politics, but also in business, and in the cosy relationship they too often enjoy. Our leaders are the deaf, who cannot hear the loud cries of the hungry, the homeless, the needy, the oppressed. Our leaders are the blind, who cannot see what is right in front of their faces.

And what of the church? We must be doers of the word, not hearers only. We cannot remain silent. What we see and hear, we must speak out about. And so while there may be many other challenges that have led to this situation, it is important to speak quite clearly about the urgent need to fast-track transformation in the mining sector by asking a few difficult questions:
- Who is holding the mining sector accountable for the commitments they make to mining communities to plant back after they have extracted ore and profits from the mines? There is a moral imperative to ensure that if these commitments are not met there must be consequences.
- Who is holding industry accountable to ensure the mining sector transforms its ownership to reflect the demographics of our country? Neglect in this regard is responsible for the slowing down of change since the initial debates on our problems.
- Who is holding the worker organisations accountable for their role in the building of a suitable working environment and a collegial relationships between unions representing workers?
- Who is holding the government accountable for driving the transformation of this industry and monitoring commitments in line with various pieces of legislation.
- What is the role of traditional leaders, local government and civil society in mining communities in the face of what is clearly a stagnation in conversations?

It is clear from these questions that the recent developments in mining show us the huge gap that has been left to develop. Viewed differently these are questions which, when answered, can generate a sense of hope for what can be achieved. The inequality gap between the rich and poor – the worst in the world by all accounts – is clearly morally indefensible and economically unsustainable, if the downgrades by international agencies as well as the weakening rand are anything to go by.

Which means, as Roosevelt surmised, we will not succeed in engendering a sense of progress and hope until we provide for the poor and the downtrodden. We need to urge the social partners and government to start looking at what austerity measures are necessary across industries to once and for all focus on the big question of redress as a crucible of hope amidst all the despair that is the aftermath of Marikana.

My time in Marikana left me with the sense that this country is like a smouldering log that, left unattended, lies ready to ignite at the slightest wind. There is real urgency in these matters I am raising here. Yet I remain an optimist, for I have faith in the living God, whose word to us is peace and hope and new life. His gospel promises us a better future.

Therefore, this is not a message of doom – it is a call to wake up and act. All South Africans must rekindle the vision of a free, fair, just, South Africa which inspired the peaceful transition to democracy – and we must work and pray to bring it about. Never again must talk of “bloodbath” become a reality within our country. If we do the right things, hope is possible.

Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town

The Sunday Independent