Defend Truth


Changing the course of a nation

After a distinguished career in advertising, Yvonne was appointed as the CEO of the International Marketing Council of SA, responsible for creating and managing Brand South Africa, which she did for 7 years. She now a Marketer-at-Large specialising in creating communication solutions and strategy. She is a renowned public speaker, talking the country up at any opportunity.

Perceptions – no matter how ill-founded or accurate – are the reality that maps the course to international prestige, status and leadership.

(In her address to The Daily Maverick’s conference, The Gathering, SA’s brandmeister extraordinaire pointed out where South Africa was failing – and what it needed to succeed.)

On a seriously long flight back from Vietnam recently, I caught up on the world news that I had managed to avoid while on holiday, engaged as I had been in the daily search for the best beef-and-noodle soup, the most beautiful monastery and some – no, make that many, custom-made suits.

I read about Australian politicians jailed for corruption, the Nigeria Vision 2020 (which sounded very like the ‘Close to Nirvana’ Kenya Vision 2020) ,the disappointing Philippine president, the even more disappointing American president and the Deloitte global corruption survey. None of it was very hopeful or inspiring.

It seems that presidents the world over are disappointing. Julia Gillard is being lampooned, the French loathe Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron has made more enemies quicker than any other prime minister in history.

It seems to me that people the world over are disappointed and looking for real courageous leadership.

Jacob Zuma is my prime example. We have watched a lethargic presidency, drifting in indecision, too much collaboration that leads to the lowest common denominator in decision making, no accountability, no visible discipline, far too many wives and whole nurseries of children … and we waft gently into Reputation No-man’s-land, plunging down the competitiveness tables of the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, joining those who don’t know how to spell the words ‘Competitive Nation’.

In 2008, I was so sure that Zuma was going to be a good president that I pinned my own colours to the mast and  predicted that we would all fall in love with our ‘in touch, personable’ president. I was sure that he would bring consideration and a sense of soul to us all.

He has been a massive disappointment, until this week, that is, when he did raise his head above the parapet, and did what good leaders of courage must do by firing  a whole bevy of five-star-staying, first-class-flying, chez-Michel-frequenters. In doing so he ruined the central theme of my talk today. While I was really irritated about my talk, I was thrilled as a South African. We are desperate to see some accountability in government, and some strength and real leadership.

In my musings, I wondered, can one really change the course of a nation?

Well, yes some have. China has. Singapore has, Chile has, Dubai has. Kenya is trying to … President Odinga has ruled that ministers may not drive cars bigger than a Toyota Corolla. He also called all CEO’s of state-operated enterprises and instructed them to create open-plan offices with cameras installed, in a very focused bid to rid the country of corruption.

Can we change the course of our nation? Can we shift the way things are done here in a way that fundamentally changes behaviour, and earns the world’s respect? With or without the politicians, can we as ordinary citizens be leaders and create the change that is necessary, and thus manage and improve  the reputation of our country?

Nation branding, as it is known, is a controversial subject. Few countries, ours included, stay the course. Few show the consistency and dedication branding needs to really change the way the world sees you. Few understand that this is not about who is in power and what they think, it is about the essence of the country and its people and what they think… and that it is a 40-year journey that is bigger than any individual leader.

The politicians who necessarily fund these initiatives want only to paint a beautiful picture of the best we have to offer. And that is good and right, and has to be done to bring some balance into the master narrative, but there must be an authenticity. The challenges have to be acknowledged. The politicians don’t necessarily want to tackle the difficult issues or make necessary changes to policy.

But those things have to be done. For in the end,  It is the behaviour, the way we do things that has to change. And as South Africans, we know that better than most. In 1994, we shifted perceptions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission shifted perceptions, the Rugby World Cup, and more recently the Soccer World Cup shifted perceptions positively. There is no doubt about that. Wherever we went in Vietnam, people talked about the world cup and how well we had managed it.
We have watched the Chilean president do it so superbly in October as he became ‘The 39th Miner’.

But it is not enough just to tell the positive side of the story. Because murdered tourists, a polygamous president and rampant violent strikes also form perceptions.

We live on a roller-coaster. We soar to the highest peaks as we did during the World Cup, and then, a few weeks later we plunge into the despair in the face of the despicable behaviour exhibited during the teachers strike. One moment we’re waving our flags, holding our heads high brimming with confidence, and the next we’re shaking our heads and lowering them in despair and embarrassment.

We need more courageous leadership in SA. In fact, we are desperate for it. There is such a culture of revenge and hiding behind the collaborative modus operandi into which we seem to sink and all too easily accept mediocrity. I hear questioning about who is going to take over the mantle of humble, moral leadership from Madiba and Desmond. There are a few people who have the courage to stand up and be counted for their view.

This is a dangerous pastime in SA, but Mamphele Ramphele does it, Cheryl Carolus does it, Zwelinzima Vavi does it, our journalists Barney Mthombothi, Ferial Haffajee, Nic Dawes and Mondli Makhanya and many others do it. And all praise to them.

My question to the 150 people in this room is: Are you prepared to do it? If not, are you at least prepared to vociferously defend those that do? They need to know that they are supported by those of us who do want to live in a competitive nation, who do want to aspire to the best.

’The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice; it is conformity.’

I operate in the world of perceptions. Written off by many as unimportant, ‘touchy feely’, the soft stuff,  ‘spin’, or, what seems to have become a derogatory term, ‘public relations’. But the longer I work in this world, the more convinced I become that perceptions are more powerful than reality; that managing one’s reputation should be high on the agenda of an individual, of a company , of a nation and of a continent. Because the ramifications of a positive reputation are tangible, and bring real change to countries –  and the opposite, too damaging for words.

The competitive nations against which South Africa is benchmarked against, all had two things in common: The rule of law was entrenched, and property rights were respected.  So when we hear the misguided Julius Malema calling for farm takeovers saying that the negotiated settlement is no longer applicable, we all need to stand up and fight the rhetoric with every atom of our being. The damage he is doing to our country’s reputation is immeasurable. 

But, the number one risk for our country and for the continent as a whole is corruption. We cannot allow it to become endemic. In the Deloitte survey ‘Corruption in South Africa’, 200  leading South Africa companies cited  corruption as their biggest concern.

In a World Bank report, one third of South African companies said they expected to have to make ‘gifts’ to secure a government contract. That is you, the people in the room, paying gifts to win business.

It is my opinion that the Corruptor is as guilty as the Corruptee.

Stop doing it. Have the courage to say loudly that you will not  participate in such practices. You will not give gifts, you will not buy holidays or homes or cars, you will not give kickbacks and shares.

To change the course of our nation, it may only take a few cohesive strong voices.

Reputation management takes coordination, alignment, understanding, commitment, buy-in, support, vision, strong leadership, sustainability and enormous courage.

So I ask again: Can we as individuals change the course of a nation?


I know that there are many cynics who believe that I look at the world through rose-coloured spectacles, who are happy to provide me with the litany of what is wrong in SA. But as an optimist and a patriot, I hold the vision of a safe, incorrupt and winning nation in my sights.

I believe there are people who are prepared to stand up and be counted, to be courageous and inspiring who will create the tipping point and wreak the change that so many are crying out for in this country.

TIME magazine, in its top trends, said: ‘All great social transformations began with public awareness and engagement. Political leaders followed rather than led. It was scientists, engineers, church leaders and young people who truly led the way.’ If, as citizens, we vote to care for the environment, then caring will be done. If  we support a global commitment to sustainable development, then our leaders will follow, and policies will be developed.

Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

Each of us has a role to play and a chance for individual leadership. This takes courage and commitment. None of us can afford to be apathetic or obsessed with the negatives.

The LeadSA campaign is a case in point. It is an idea whose time has come. Six or seven years  ago when I was at Brand SA and we asked newspaper editors to run regular good news facts, they rejected the idea completely. Today there it is, on the front page of all Independent Group newspapers. I am sure that is because the euphoria the World Cup created was very compelling. We came to feel what it was like to be a winning nation, and we liked it.

The bottom line is that South Africa, and we as individuals have to be competitive to reap the benefits of foreign investment, of tourism and of healthy foreign relations. I believe we all would prefer to be part of a successful winning nation than the opposite of that.

’It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.’ – Mark Twain”  DM


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