ON SATURDAY, when Bafana Bafana stuttered to a goalless draw in the opening match of the African Nations Cup, my host at a social gathering pointed out that tiny Cape Verde, in whose football headlights we froze, is smaller than Benoni.

Compelling though this "David versus Goliath" analogy might be, I was more arrested by the thought that the last time we hosted the tournament, in 1996, we went on to lift the cup, beating Tunisia 2-0 in the final. Back then, buoyed by the "Madiba magic", all things seemed possible for the rainbow nation and winning in football and rugby was simply an extension of our profound political and economic accomplishments. A disunited country, riven by centuries of conflict and oppression, had just two years before surprised itself and the world by uniting around a new constitution and making common purpose with a democratic future. On the surface at least, the country’s old business titans, new political elite and trade union barons appeared to be pulling in the same direction and the world beat a path to the door of the president, Nelson Mandela.

Aside from inspired leadership and a compelling back story, it was South Africa’s great fortune that its rise to international pre-eminence 20 years ago coincided with the most beneficent economic conditions and rising globalised prosperity ever witnessed. Continued economic growth and political stability seemed inevitable, provided countries embraced light-touch regulations and low taxes, central banks tamped down inflation and governments used an expanding revenue base to spread the wealth, from featherbedded retirements to 35-hour working weeks. It is true the latter was applied in socialist France, not in free-market America, but even there, California prison guards, for example, could contemplate an early retirement with index-linked pensions guaranteed.

There were, of course, some warning voices. Margaret Thatcher, whose decade in power tamed the UK trade unions and runaway inflation but also kept social spending at unsustainable highs, offered one such caveat: "Socialism works well until governments run out of other people’s money to spend."

Thatcher and Mandela — two leaders with opposite convictions but of great consequence to the world — are now in the late evenings of their lives. A booming UK has made way for an austere UK, and our rainbow nation is fading and fissiparous. Low-tax, high-entitlement California has seen one town after another go bankrupt.

The sombre global picture, with different local characteristics, confronts US President Barack Obama as he commences his difficult second term and President Jacob Zuma as he jets off to Davos with the equally hard task of selling South Africa to wary investors.

Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, viewing the immediacy of the fiscal cliff in the US, the stresses on the euro and Japan’s decade-long attempts to arrest deflation, made a more universal and depressing point: he suggested that the prospects for long-run prosperity are "less than we think". He argues that even if the third (IT) industrial revolution arrests national decline in some places through rapid productivity growth, it will not lead to inclusive growth.

He argues the big payoff will come from the "rise of smart machines … ready to perform many tasks that currently require large amounts of human labour".

On a more hopeful note, the New York Times published a piece last week by the authors of a forthcoming book, The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. According to Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, having interviewed highly successful leaders from tennis stars to indie rock groups and iconic restaurateurs, it is not simply talent, luck persistence and dedication that leads to superstar status and accomplishment. The authors note: "The successful people we spoke with all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they achieved them.

"No one’s idea of a good time is to take a brutal assessment of their animating assumptions and to acknowledge that those may have contributed to their failure. It’s easy to find ways to explain why the world has not adequately rewarded our efforts. But what we learned from our conversation with high achievers is that challenging our assumptions, objectives, at times even our goals, may sometimes push us further than we thought possible."

Mandela writes that on Robben Island he walked the path of critical self-examination. In decorous language, our National Planning Commission’s report undertook this process as well. Perhaps it should now inform our national conversation, assuming that we can stop shouting at each other and recommence one. We might even start winning again in sport as well.

• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA.