Where’s Today’s National Myth?

Sarah Britten gives a field guide to our defining ideas of the last 20 years, wondering where that leaves us now?

Twenty three years ago last month, FW de Klerk ushered in a new chapter of history when he spoke in Parliament of “a new South Africa”. Also last month, FNB seems to have attempted something similar, though with somewhat less success. The debacle triggered by the You Can Help campaign appears to have blown over and we can all move onto the next distraction. But, all the politics aside, the campaign was clearly an attempt to start a movement and to set some kind of national agenda. To create, if you like, a national myth.

By “national myth”, I mean myth in the larger sense of the word: an overarching narrative that lends meaning and purpose to daily life all too often dominated by potholes, poverty and depressing headlines. While they may be shadowed by pessimistic counter-narratives, national myths tend to be optimistic; nations need myths to power the engine of collective self-belief. America, for all its divisions between Republican and Democrat, still holds fast to the conviction that it is the land of the free.

South Africa has national narratives of its own. Prior to the official demise of apartheid, South Africans of different races held fast to very different myths. The Struggle gave activists a sense of purpose and confidence that they would ultimately succeed no matter the sacrifices that would have to be made; the lunacy of apartheid was sustained in turn by the myth of Afrikaner self-determination, itself supported by the idea that they were God’s chosen people.

After apartheid was consigned to the dustbin of history, we needed a new national myth and that’s exactly what FW de Klerk did. Since then, the body politic has entertained several national myths. Advertisers played an important part in their propagation, and for many South Africans, “new South Africa” and “beer ads” are synonymous. Some of these myths still persist, faint echoes of their former glory, though whether any of them are still relevant is open to debate.

Here’s a brief overview of the national myths that have held sway since 1990:

The New South Africa

Dates: 1990 – 1998
Named by: FW de Klerk
Driven by: nationalist government prior to 1994; cynics and supporters
Defining symbol: new South African flag
Notes: The myth of the new South Africa served its purpose by definitively separating the apartheid past from the rocky path to democracy. It was something of a catch-all rubric, playing host to other myths like the Rainbow Nation and Madiba Magic.
Killed off by: Lack of relevance. Nothing can stay new forever.
Associated ad campaigns: Castle Lager ‘Homecoming’, Castrol, Vodacom’s “Yebo Gogo” series, Sales House.

Rainbow Nation

Dates: 1993-1998; persisted for years afterwards
Named by: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who referred to the “rainbow people of God” and inadvertently named the myth seized on by the international media.
Driven by: international media who wanted a fairytale; white South Africans; the local media.
Defining characteristic: Amnesia
Notes: reached its apotheosis during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, so became associated with Madiba Magic. “Rainbowism” eventually became a dirty word, and the idea of the rainbow today codes for the desire to stick Band-Aids onto deep wounds that remain unhealed.
Killed off by: Thabo Mbeki’s Two Nations speech in 1998. The TRC also put a great deal of strain on this myth.
Associated ad campaigns: Castle Lager, SAA, Vodacom

Madiba Magic

Dates: 1995 – 2000; ongoing but now very low key
Coined at: 1995 Rugby World Cup final, when Mandela’s presence was credited with spurring the Springboks on to victory.
Driven by: local media; marketers of Madiba shirts and curios.
Defining image: Mandela with Francois Pienaar.
Notes: A disconcerting combination of the near-deification and (mostly) rather cynical marketing exploitation of Nelson Mandela.
Associated ad campaigns: SABC, SAA, countless marketing knick-knacks, Madiba artwork etc

African renaissance

Dates: 1996 (“I am an African” speech) – 2000
Named by: Thabo Mbeki
Driven by: Thabo Mbeki
Defining symbol: Map of Africa, popular on T-shirts from Big Blue.
Notes: Though Mbeki pushed this myth hard, and it was the defining idea of his presidency, it never resonated beyond a small core of politicians, academics and businesspeople.
Killed off by: failure to connect with ordinary South Africans
Associated ad campaigns: Eskom, MTN. The African renaissance made an appearance in many corporate print campaigns but made little too no impact in mainstream consumer advertising.  The current Standard Bank brand campaign is something of an echo of this myth, though it draws on the current “Africa rising” myth that has little to do with Mbeki’s vision.

 Brand South Africa

Dates: 2000- July 2010
Named by: International Marketing Council
Driven by: Sunday Times
Defining personality: Mark Shuttleworth in the early years.
Notes: Shuttleworth, tourism and the resurgence of the rand led to the emergence of this national myth (which, strictly speaking, was never named as such in the same way as the rainbow nation or the African renaissance). The 2010 World Cup can be seen as part of this myth, which allowed us to prove ourselves to the rest of the world. The football was also an effective distraction from the political instability that dominated the headlines between 2005 and 2010.
Killed off by: violent strikes after the World Cup in 2010. Phillip left the building, and he never came back.
Associated ad campaigns: SAA, IMC, various 2010 World Cup campaigns. In many ways, the Castle Lager New York ad of 1998 anticipated this myth.

Economic freedom

Dates: 2011-2012
Named by: Julius Malema
Defining symbol: Breitling watch
Notes: In the vacuum after 2010, Julius Malema’s call for economic freedom was the closest we had to a national myth – even if the media, government and business (which usually defines national myths between them) were in direct opposition. Now that Julius is a cabbage farmer, his economic freedom myth has quietly shuffled off the national stage along with its progenitor. (It may well be back though.)
Killed off by: reversal of political fortune – myths so closely associated with individuals rarely outlive them.
Associated ad campaigns: none.

What’s clear is that we’ve had no functioning national myth since 2010. Apart from Julius Malema’s unofficial economic freedom myth, we’ve had no focal idea, no national mission statement. There have been attempts to define one – LeadSA is one example – but nothing has resonated and the narrative has effectively stalled. “The second transition” isn’t going to get anyone excited, and the National Development Plan will only inspire people on the ground if it plugs into a compelling story. Myths are far more about emotion than rational reflection, after all.

So, where will a new national myth come from? Previous myths have been imposed from the top, either by the president, a prominent public figure or the media. In an ideal world, a new narrative would be much more representative. FNB really was onto something with the idea of giving children a voice – it’s just a pity that they focused less on what the voiceless aspire to, and more on government’s failure to deliver. Will another big advertiser step up to the plate? It’s entirely possible that the FNB debacle scares off other big brands from attempting something similar. Still, we can’t stay in limbo forever. 23 years after the naming of a new South Africa, the story needs somewhere to go.

– Britten is WHAM! associate editor.