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Within a couple days of it being published on Biznews.com, Alan Knott-Craig’s think piece on how to live happily in South Africa was read by more than 50,000 people. That’s an exceptional number for what; after all, is a clear diversion from the usual mass market fare of doom and gloom. So to find out what motivated him to do this, in this week’s episode of Rational Radio we caught him at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport en route home to the Cape. Warning to pessimists: this might just change your worldview. – Alec Hogg
I caught up with Alan Knott-Craig at the airport on his way back to Cape Town from Johannesburg and no doubt ear’s buzzing, because so many people are talking about the article that you wrote for Biznews this week. Alan, it really has been quite uplifting and quite inspiring and it’s unusual for you to do this kind of thing.
I wouldn’t say my ears are buzzing but I have had the odd WhatsApp message forwarding the article to me. So it does seem to have done the right things.
So what made you think about writing this piece in the first place?
Normal story, I get this feeling in your company, at braai’s you are going to with family and friends, there’s a lot of negativity and I don’t personally feel negative. At some point you decide to share your rationale for being optimistic and it results in an email, and the next thing you know a guy called Alec Hogg asks you to write something for his website, and that’s how it happens.
But we’ve seen mixed responses. We as Afro- or South African-optimists are very clearly in the minority right now in South Africa. How do you deal with that criticism that says you really don’t know what you talking about.
There’s a famous guy called Samuel Goldwyn who says “pay no attention to the critics and actually even ignore them”. It’s like a life policy for me. But the truth is I might be wrong, people who disagree with me have every right to disagree. We live in a country with free speech. For me personally, the whole point of being optimistic about South Africa, is not so much about a rational argument – because there is no real rational argument saying that South Africa is gonna be great. It’s just about reacting. I don’t know, I’m an economic prisoner. Having another passport is not the way to have a plan B. You really have to have a lot of money if you want to leave the country. So once I realised that I’m stuck here, then what’s the point of getting negative about it. I’d rather just commit 100% to my country and be happy. Maybe it all works out in which case I’ve made the most of my years and maybe it doesn’t work out in which case I’ll have to leave anyway. But for me there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by being negative and staying in South Africa.
It’s quite an interesting thought process that you went through there to say – well I am a prisoner anyway, what the hell. Make the best of it. Many other people say I am a prisoner, I’m angry about it and I will remain resentful. How did you cross that river?
It’s a good question. I think prison is such a negative word. It makes it sound like I live in SA against my will. I love this country. I’ve been privileged to travel to lots of countries in the world. I think I live in the best country in the world. Bang for buck you’re not going to get better than this country. My family’s here, people who laugh at my jokes are here, this is my place. I’m not staying here against my will. I don’t have to live in South Africa. My family and I could live anywhere, we choose to live here. As far as money is concerned, to have the quality of life I have over here, I’m certainly not an economic prisoner. There’s no other country in the world I can get this quality of life. So I’d rather just work on the assumption that everything’s gonna work out fine in the end.
It’s a good starting point to go from, but what do you really think about whether things will end up fine in the end?
We’ve had a lot of leakage, not just corruption but inefficiency. It’s not like you have to discover the world’s biggest oil reserves. So I think our country has enough potential. At the end of the day your country is your people. I’ve traveled a lot in South Africa in the last years for business reasons, all the small towns and I never meet assholes. I meet very nice people black, white, Afrikaans, English, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever. They’re very respectful, they share my values, they want to make a living and put their kids through school and they don’t want to steal. So it’s a wonderful country when you think of the people that make it up. I just try to turn a deaf ear to all the headlines and remind myself that it’s a country of great people and great potential and with the right leadership I think we can get there.
We had one of your critics say that he really enjoyed your piece on Biznews but he hated the part where you say don’t read newspapers. What was behind that thought?
He probably owns a newspaper. I’m a big fan of newspapers. As you know I’ve supported Daily Maverick. I’m a massive supporter of free media. Newspapers in particular I think saved the country in the last few years, when you think of the #GuptaLeaks etc. but there’s really nothing to be gained by reading negative headlines all day getting frustrated about stuff that you cant influence. More than that, I get a lot of criticism because I don’t seem to like Donald Trump.
Yeah, I guess that is another bone of contention with many people in South Africa. Mr. Trump is extraordinary. You either love him or hate him. But Alan, you’ve got a young family, a brood of young ladies, do you feel that it’s a safe place to be bringing up young girls?
I’ve got three daughters and that’s obviously a number one question in my mind all the time – safety and security and we just try to manage this as much as we can. I don’t judge anyone who wants to leave the country on an incident, whether it’s crime related or you can get a promotion in Australia and you can’t get a promotion here or whatever. I don’t judge anything particular on safety and security but again, I look at my options and I don’t really have an option of living anywhere else. So I’ve got to manage the safety and security thing and hopefully our community can manage it and I believe the president can get the cops to do their job and it all works out. I’m not ignorant of that and it’s something I have to manage.
It’s also something that is going to take a long time given how long it’s taken to destroy so many of those state institutions. But I’d like to close off our brief chat by just getting a sense of what you found in Tshwane. You did an interesting development there when you were between businesses. Just take us through what happened there and how you found the people reacting to the free Wi-Fi that was implemented.
Well we did a massive project with the municipality at the time. It was an NGO project, where we helped the roll out of public free Wi-Fi in the townships. Each success opened my eyes to how much you can achieve when you work with the government. So there’s a massive legacy and it’s something I’m very proud of. I learned a couple of lessons out of that. The first lesson I learned is I truly think that if you give everybody Internet in South Africa, by definition it’ll be a better place. A lot of what happens, happens because there are secrets and the moment there’s Internet, there are no more secrets. Secondly, the government’s not going to solve our problems. The private sector is going to solve our problems. The government has to play a role, but we can’t wait for the state to save us – whether it’s NHI or broadband, or whatever. No one is going to save us. Companies like Capitec are great examples of the private sector solving a massive problem which was the unbanked, in a profitable way – rather than trying to have a state bank solve that problem. It’s a private sector solution. And lastly I think communities. The safety and security thing and the water crisis in Cape Town. Funny enough it’s making government really local again. So you know whether it’s your neighbourhood watch or whether it’s just monitoring your neighbours water consumption you know people taking responsibility for their own communities. It can’t be a bad thing. So hopefully the country and the private sector and the government can work together. One thing I should add in here. I watched a TV program when I was young. It was all about the hole in the ozone layer and I really got stressed because according to the TV, there was a massive one over the southern hemisphere and we’re all going to die. And I went to my dad and asked him what are we going to do? He just looked at me and said: Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be okay. And it turned out that actually, everything was okay. That’s what I tell my kids. To a large extent if you can’t influence the problem just don’t pay attention to it.
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