By Adam Wakefield
It was in 2002 at a dinner party Pennington and his wife attended that the seeds for South Africa – The Good News, were sowed.
“It was clear the dinner party had been organised to celebrate a couple emigrating to Australia and the conversation throughout the evening focused on all the doom and gloom and how South Africa was going to become the next Zimbabwe, etc.,” Pennington, an author and speaker, says.
As the evening progressed, Pennington became more and more frustrated because he did not have the facts at hand to credibly respond.
“I couldn’t argue back on anything. I resolved the next day to write a book called South Africa – The Good News and the model I used was to solicit the views of some 40 experts in their field,” including the likes of then-Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel.
Nine other books and a website have followed with Pennington’s goal being establishing an informed narrative about the good happening in South Africa, based on fact, on topics often ignored by the mainstream media. However, Pennington is “no sunshine journalist”, regularly critiquing different issues as they arise.
“What we try and do is focus on what the facts are and what our standing is internationally. When South African say things like, ‘Joburg is the crime capital of the world’, there are in fact a dozen American cities where crime is much worse than it is in Joburg,” Pennington says.
Much of Pennington’s time is devoted to studying international surveys, rankings, and articles written by experts and then posting them on his website, such as the “extraordinary untold story” of what is being done in the NGO sector, and 200 “fast facts” of where South Africa is in relation to the world.
One aspect of South African society Pennington is stridently critical of is the role the country’s mainstream media plays in promoting a perception of doom and gloom, particularly in the political arena, “to the point of being unhealthy”.
Asked why he believes South African media tend to focus primarily on the negative, Pennington references Nick Davies’ 2008 book Flat Earth News: An Award Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media.
“He talks about what happened to the media generally and I think with social media becoming as powerful as it is as a news source, printed media has really begun to struggle in terms of the way they staff their newsrooms,” Pennington says.
“So much of what goes into the printed media now is second or third hand. It’s not investigated by journalists working there a lot of the time.”
There are exceptions, of course, but from Pennington’s vantage point, newspapers are struggling to keep their heads above water, so they choose the easy and expedient option. The mind set of “if it bleeds, it leads” is not helping matters either.
Pennington feels there is a genuine sense at present that cronyism and corruption has steadily gotten worse under the current government, which is being badly led. It is a perception Pennington agrees with, but returning to the original pretext of why South Africa – The Good News exists, he says as South Africa approaches Heritage Day, there is much to be positive about.
“I bumped into Max du Preez the other day. We were talking at a forum together, and he was saying that one of the things that is extraordinary about South Africans is their ability to self-correct,” Pennington says.
“I think if you look at our journey over the last 20 years, a lot has been achieved in this country. If you look at all the basics like water, electricity, and housing delivery, among other indicators, the progress has been remarkable. A truth is that we have pushed back poverty in this country.”
It is not a case of only taking in the good over the bad, but South Africans who ignored the good news are doing so at their peril. If the good is understood, there is so much more energy to deal with bad. If you only know what the bad is, the grass will always look greener elsewhere.
“South Africans are a special people. We are not like anyone else. The country is an extraordinary place to live in,” Pennington says.
“We may be in the doldrums politically, but we will emerge from it stronger and better. There is a real future here in terms of opportunity in terms of our children, more so than there is in other parts of the world.”