Headline articles in two influential British newspapers encapsulated the contradictions in the SA story: its boundless promise in one and its disastrous profile in another.

One of the most popular UK broadsheets (read serious) newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, published its latest travel awards based on the votes of its readers. SA came out tops as the best country to travel to, with totemic Cape Town accoladed as the “greatest city on earth”.

More balefully, mass circulating red-top paper (read tabloid) The Sun headlined its SA story “Horror as British Airways [BA] captain is held at gunpoint and STABBED in terrifying attack”.

In lurid detail the article recounts how the pilot was attacked and assaulted while out on a run in northern Johannesburg having “broken strict BA rules” that none of its team should leave the safety of Melrose Arch to brave the wilds of the once safe streets of the surrounds. The article notes, “areas of Johannesburg are widely considered ‘lawless’ and off limits to crew members during airline downtime”. The unfortunate aviator survived the stabbing after hospital treatment. He was more fortunate than the 75 South Africans killed, on average, every day, in one or other armed assault.

Doubtless there are other countries where BA staff have been victims of violent crime, and there will be some finger-pointing at the pilot for ignoring safety protocols. But the assault attracted headline treatment precisely because it chimes with the experience of so many locals and the image of a violent SA abroad.

Another aspect of the juxtaposing images of SA invites scrutiny: for the well-off and for most of private industry and commerce, security has been privatised with no reliance at all on the hapless and compromised state security sector. For the bulk of the population, the multiple failures of policing and law enforcement leave millions to fend for themselves.

Our tourism offer is almost entirely based on the natural treasures and patrimony of the country. The government is entirely not responsible for the sunsets, mountains and beaches, the game reserves (bar Kruger National Park, founded and envisioned by the last Boer president of the Transvaal, though managed by SanParks today) and private operators at other reserves basically do the maintenance and upkeep themselves).

A glimpse into government thinking on tourism is revealed in its choices for this key ministry. The previous incumbent, Lindiwe Sisulu, was “punished” for her recalcitrance by being dumped into the job. The current officeholder, Patricia de Lille, an improvement indeed, has no constituency in the ruling party and was elbowed out of public works & infrastructure to appease the ANC barons and its competing factions.

The previous mismanagement and corruption in SA Tourism — evinced by the extraordinary, subsequently cancelled, R1bn Tottenham Hotspur deal — provides more insight into a body that columnist Peter Bruce described as “top leaders in an organisation running side hustles on top of their day jobs”.

When the government is not busy visiting onerous employment equity prescriptions and xenophobic work restrictions on the tourism sector, it would do well to consider an obvious fact. Tourism is the one key sector which, with little government effort and with considerable private sector participation, could meet so many targets it has otherwise missed: from job creation to foreign investment and picking both the rand and the growth rate up from the floor where other government policies have crashed it.

The headline from the Telegraph travel survey contains the answer on the demand side. Easing and helping the supply side, or not stifling and restricting it, is the answer.

This column is penned from Greece, whose gifts from its ancient civilisation are, literally, legendary. Today, though, and with a far shorter tourism season than our own, it offers the modern world one compelling statistic: in 2019, the year before Covid-19 struck, it hosted 31.3-million visitors, contributing a whopping 25% to the nation’s GNP. Even more remarkable is that the number of annual tourists is triple the 10-million permanent Greek population.

In SA, admittedly a long-haul destination, the figures for the same year are exceedingly modest by comparison: 10.23-million international tourists in a sector that contributes a far lesser amount to GDP (6.4% in 2019). Foreign tourists are only one-sixth of our permanent population. In other words, the upside and unfilled potential are huge.

But for the government to act on this achingly obvious fact would require a degree of self-reflection and adjustment. My recent visit to the relics of the temple at Delphi was a reminder of the oracle’s famous axiom, “know thyself”. Such oracular wisdom is largely lost on a government which, beset by failures on all fronts, often ploughs on via autopilot on the course it set in 2007.

Tourism requires little of the government except to increase the airline operating licences (via liberalising the bilateral air service agreements) from a sclerotic department of transport, incentivise private tour operators and attempt to ensure (a big ask) that tourists are reasonably safe or at least don’t get stabbed in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. And maintaining our cultural heritage.

Mandela Day on July 18 provided another round of international headlines for the country, though much in the tone of how far SA had strayed from his inspirational example and how fed-up and disappointed younger citizens have soured on the reality and often the mythology encrusting our democratic founder.

One item in the New York Times on this topic got my attention. Its intrepid reporter Lynsey Chutel had visited many of the nearly two dozen Mandela statues of his image across the country. But as she notes, “some of these memorials to Mandela have fallen on hard times”. Among the examples she cites is the “crack in the base” of the largest Mandela memorial in the country: a 9m bronze statue in Pretoria.

Undaunted by the care and maintenance needed, never mind the grafters and skimmers whose shoddy workmanship led to our iconography being “fallen on hard times”, a new series of statues to the great man was unveiled on July 18. And the new one in Durban, which cannot clean its own sewage, at a cost of R20m.

Another famous axiom of the oracle enshrined in the pristine museum at Delphi reads: “Nothing in excess”. Much modern wisdom for SA in those ancient words.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition and SA ambassador to Argentina, now chairs a communications company.