Brand South Africa is in trouble
Besieged by frequent lawlessness, xenophobia, fading democratic values and almost daily stories of corruption, bribery, looting, abuse and wastage of state resources, Brand South Africa is slowly fading. Actually, the Rainbow Nation’s image has never been in as serious trouble as it is now. As country, we have a serious image problem.
Here are examples to demonstrate our country’s battered image: Frequent
exposés of corruption as narrated by the State of Capture report, detailing allegations that the government thrives on corruption, bribery and looting of state coffers; the anti-immigrants attitudes; the downgrading of South Africa’s sovereign credit rating to junk status; the staggering rate of unemployment; the high rates of domestic violence and women abuse; and the brazen and heinous violent crimes.
Brand South Africa threatening scandals are becoming a regular feature of the corporate and political landscape, thanks to a toxic mixture of exposés by moles who scatter details of moral decay and the Internet, which allows bad news to spread like wildfire worldwide.
There has also been the “Unburdening Panel” by the South African Council of Churches, which painted the “systematic syphoning of state assets,” and the “betrayal of the promise” stating how “South Africa is being stolen” by multiple researchers who concluded they found that South Africa has experienced a “silent coup.”
Now the world is daily being fascinated by #GuptaLeaks, the tidbits from 100000 to 200000 unique e-mails sent between the Gupta brothers, their associates and others purporting to show how the family brokered favours from ministers and executives of public enterprises.
It is these reports of the culture of corruption and moral degeneration, the daily news of government mismanagement and the public’s general careless attitude towards the laws of our land that are hurting the image and brand of our country.
Our country’s brand, that important component to national development given its effect on global trade, investments, tourism and diplomacy, that sum total of our way of life, heritage, culture and aspirations, that image which could mean the difference between being preferred or written off, is being severely battered. We are slowly being written off as a failed state.
Our positive attributes are slowly fading, replaced by materialism, self-enrichment and selfishness, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
That we are slowly being seen as a nation rampaged by corruption is painful. It hurts even just to write about it. But this is the truth. We can no longer walk tall with our shoulders high. The corruption that for many years permeated across our continent has arrived in earnest.
I have received messages from friends across the US, UK, Canada and across our continent. Unlike in the past, when there was constant admiration, these days there is scorn. My friends are taking a dig at our country on how we are gradually sinking into a lawless and corrupt nation, striking out the democratic values that have enabled us to survive against the odds and begin to thrive.
Recently, while visiting London and Manchester in April, fellow Africans laughed at me, made snide remarks such as: “Shame. For many years you thought you were better. Now your country is as corrupt as those African countries you looked down on for many years. Why are you letting corruption get worse in your country? Shame you thought you were better than us. What happened to the Mandela magic?”
As an admirer of country branding, having a strong image gave our nation gravitas. Now I cry as I see the flame of our brand die. For years I have followed and enjoyed how countries brand themselves. I clearly remember New Zealand’s “Forever Young”, which perfectly captured the youthful energy of the country’s young population. Incredible India and Malaysia’s “Truly Asia” attesting the integrity and spirit of these Asian tigers.
I have admired how Singaporeans have established themselves as a competent, hard working and law-abiding nation and how South Koreans have endeared themselves as a country whose culture also endears it to the world.
I have marvelled at how France is associated with chic, Great Britain with class, Sweden with design, Germany with engineering and Switzerland with precision.
The above countries have shown us that nation branding takes into account different things: tourism, exports, people, policy, culture and investment and most importantly, moral leadership.
Of course, our “Alive with Possibilities” gave us an affirmative self-image, particularly when looked at in conjunction with former President Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech turned poem.
Now I doubt if as South Africans we still believe in ourselves like we did like 10 to 15 years into our democracy.
Brand South Africa continues to be battered and is fading dismally. The aura that enveloped not only the private sector, citizens and our national attributes and helped us to be admired and emulated and treated with respect, is dying. We should be under no misapprehension. The scenes of wanton political and moral anarchy have damaged the reputation of this country in a way that will take years to repair.
What can we do? How can we regain our positive brand essence? The thing that has caused so much damage to Brand South Africa is foremost a failure to do the right thing, as opposed to a failure to interpret and follow the law.
The key to a successful regaining of our moral high ground lies in regaining the confidence of multiple groups - investors, customers, employees, partners and suppliers - each with their own concerns.
We cannot afford to become the laughing stock of the world. Our country’s global brand leadership will not thrive on compromise, but requires the head and the heart to work in harmony.
To rebuild Brand South Africa we need political and business leadership, clear and honest communication and a high integrity political and corporate culture.
We need to embed into the fabric of our country’s positive values and principles codes of conduct that focus equally not only on what every South African can and can’t do, but also on what we should and shouldn’t do.
Corruption can be a scourge in democracies or dictatorships. But it is more likely to fester when we have no way to hold the perpetrators and our government accountable. To defeat corruption is to enforce the distinction between private preference and public duty. As citizens we are also responsible in communicating that we are a force for good and capable of putting aside self-interest and corrupt tendencies.
Corruption is a societal issue and must therefore be confronted by all of us. Those who point fingers or simply assume that the government alone must act are misguided. We must stop the “it is our time to eat” culture of black entitlement to compensate for past suffering under apartheid.
We must accept that corruption amounts to nothing more than greed and theft and it deprives communities of much-needed services and stands as a clear and present danger to our hard-won freedom. It advantages the powerful over the weak, and creates resentment between the “haves” and “have nots.”
To fully restore the South African brand to its former glory, we should focus on a strategy aimed at restoring trust all around, emphasise commitment to making things right, arrest the moral decay, show the world that we are truly remorseful and taking steps to right our wrongs.
We need to clean up internal problems and return to our country’s core moral values and begin to intentionally align our culture and take a long view. After all, brands are not built - and certainly not rebuilt - in a day.
Our work as civil society is clear: we have to spread a message of hope across the continent and the world. People need to be given the space to stand up against corruption and wastage without fear of retaliation. It is everyone’s duty to get serious about ending the widespread impunity when tarnishing of Brand South Africa.
Regaining the trust of the world poses a tough challenge, requires major behavioural change and a leap of faith in all of us. Indeed, re-establishing a positive country brand experience are keys to finding the way back, but it will be a long road to recovery.
Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm (www.mediaandwritersfirm.com), a content development and reputation management hub.