By Vanessa Papas
“Dear optimists, pessimists and realists, while you were arguing about the level of the water in the glass, I drank it. Regards, the opportunist.”
Midway through South Africa’s to COVID-19 lockdown many South Africans look to the future with fear and uncertainty. We chat to award-winning financial journalist Bruce Whitfield about his newly released book, The Upside Of Down, and why he believes the very crisis in which South Africans find themselves right now could be enormous opportunity for renewal, growth and optimism.
What sparked the idea to write this book?
I was worried about the stories we tell ourselves about South Africans. We obsess about politics and politicians and fail to get a holistic view of the country we live in. If you focus only on the noise, you see only chaos. If you step back and look at society and business and how we can thrive despite tin-pot despots – you get a whole new perspective.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of the book?
It is a wakeup call. Growth and prosperity for South Africa and its people are a choice. A choice that has been squandered for more than a decade by naked self-interest and greed. We need to think differently about our future.
How long did it take to complete?
About 20 years. The real work on the book began on December 9, 2015 when Nhlanhla Nene got fired and I began a series of corporate talks encouraging audiences to not just focus on the political narrative but to look at the opportunities that creates for entrepreneurs in society. People kept asking me why there was no book and once I was commissioned by Pan MacMillan in September last year, I started writing and handed the draft manuscript to the publisher by December. The real work, however, is the result of two decades of interviews and thinking about how we see the world in which we live.
Would you say The Upside Of Down is an easy book to navigate or a hard read?
I write the way I speak, and the editor, Russell Martin, did a marvellous job of tightening up the loose conversational tone into a more disciplined script. I am told by people who have read it that they hear my voice in their head reading to them – so I think Russell managed to keep that tone despite improving the text I submitted.
Did you ever suffer writers block?
Just for the first month of writing. I am a procrastinator by nature. I found the process quite overwhelming at first, but had a long-overdue family holiday planned for December and knew that if I didn’t meet my deadline, the break would be ruined. That was a great motivator. I was just 23 hours overdue. Which, I am told, by writer standards, is not too bad.
What was your work schedule like when writing?
Insane. I have a busy and varied life as it is. In between year-end concerts, speaking engagements, daily radio shows, regular TV interviews and weekly writing deadlines, the book got written. I am still not quite sure how. It may have had something to do with the writing marathon in the last week of November in which I moved out of home to a place with lousy cellphone signal and no distractions, lived on two-minute noodles and peppermint tea.
The book covers everything from the stock market and SA’s inequality crisis to the (not-so) mighty ZAR. What was your hardest chapter to write?
Education. Because it is so complex and such a mess. Generations of South Africa’s young people are being so badly betrayed by a department that has repeatedly failed to bring out the best in our youth.
What was your favourite and least favourite part of the publishing journey?
Favourite part? Getting the book. Least favourite, the backwards-and-forwards perfecting of the manuscript. A necessary part of the process; but for someone with a short attention span…
What is the most surprising thing you discovered about yourself while writing this book?
That there is actually a book.
Where can readers purchase The Upside Of Down?
All the big chains are kindly carrying it and have it safely locked up during lockdown – but digital downloads are easily available via Amazon and Kobo.
What is the significance of the title?
Chaos breeds opportunity. Opportunists thrive when there is state failure.