SOUTH Africa has to play to its strengths and steer away from the negativity. That was the considered view of Julian Roberts, CEO of Old Mutual, expressed on the sidelines of the Financial Times Africa Summit in London last week.

It’s good advice.

But how do we do that when every new day brings a new revelation about historic or new corruption allegations?

How do we do that when we grapple with unemployment and poverty while state profligacy runs seemingly unchecked and when neglect of infrastructure results in a water crisis — on top of an electricity crisis?

In our continental game of thrones, our rival, Nigeria, has rebased its gross domestic product (GDP) and is now, to put it in the words of Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, “top dog” in sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, code name Eiffel Tower reportedly believes that corruption is only a crime in a “western paradigm” and nuclear power deals are being signed behind closed doors. It’s tempting to think of SA as a bunch of Lego bricks strewn across a carpet in your lounge — disorganised but with much potential.

So, against this background, how do we play to our strengths?

By knowing that the failings and foibles of our leaders do not define us. That’s how.

It’s tough for us, as a nation, to go from the warm embrace of the iconic Nelson Mandela to the cold reality that his successors fall far short of the mark.

I’ve used this quote before but it is worth repeating: “What has made this nation great? Not its heroes but its households,” said Sara Orne Jewett, a 19th-century US writer.

We all know that if we rebased our GDP and included all sorts of “informal” economic activity, we’d leapfrog Nigeria. But what would be the point?

We all know that we have the only manufacturing base on the continent. We know that our businesses go forth and conquer — not just in Africa but in Europe and the UK.

We frequently lose sight of the fact that had it not been for us, who the analysts call “ordinary South Africans”, Mandela’s grand design for the country would have been built on shaky foundations.

Ours is a country whose households have nurtured the likes of the Enthovens (who own Nando's, Hollard and Spier wine estate) and the Patrice Motsepes of this world.

From pushing the boundaries in defence technology, to world-class financial services and the lion-hearted spirit that built global businesses SABMiller, Anglo American and Glencore — we’ve proven ourselves.

Here’s Roberts on what differentiates us from our rivals: “I think one has to play on … the skill sets that we’ve got. We have the financial services skill sets, we have the manufacturing skill sets, yes, we know we’d like to have more, (but) we have strong rule of law and SA has to play to those elements and steer away from the negativity.

“Our (Old Mutual’s) expansion into the rest of Africa is absolutely using the skill sets of the people we’ve got in the Old Mutual group, largely in SA. Without them we would not be able to do it.”

But what of the focus on Nigeria and other African markets in financial capitals such as London where SA has had to play second fiddle to juicier fruit?

Roberts: “Don’t be surprised about that, I think sometimes South Africans get too negative about it.

“The fact is, if I take insurance and banking, it’s mature in SA. It is not mature in most other African countries. Therefore, people get excited about the exponential growth you can get in the other countries, which does not mean there is not good growth one is also getting in SA.

“I think what is important is that the government has come out and endorsed the National Development Plan, as have business. What we need to see now are steps moving forward that deliver on that plan. That is what the world is looking for.”

Last week, very much under the radar, the first SA-UK business council meeting happened in the UK.

It was not heralded. There was no press conference. But it was the result of behind-the-scenes work by the likes of Brand SA and, I’m told, Baroness Patricia Scotland and a host of people of goodwill.

The significance of this cannot be understated. We do, in the words of a silver-fox wise to the ways of The City, “need to unleash the goodwill in the City of London”.

And we can.

Ours is a country whose households have nurtured the likes of the Enthovens (who own Nando's, Hollard and Spier wine estate) and the Patrice Motsepes of this world.

We may have lost our giants. But you can build fantastic stuff with Lego blocks.

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