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Can South Africa rebrand itself?

Mzukisi Qobo is head of Wits School of Governance (designate), University of the Witwatersrand.

Any effort to rebrand South Africa should begin at the domestic level – to galvanise a new national consciousness about who we are, what values we share, and what goals we aspire to achieve as a nation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been widely commended for putting together a high-powered and diverse team to champion South Africa abroad as a credible investment destination. This nation-branding exercise is much needed after coming out of a long dark tunnel that President Jacob Zuma’s term signified. Ramaphosa’s step is an important beginning, but there is still much more that needs to be done to restore public trust, and to lay a concrete basis for social and economic reforms.

Ramaphosa’s team comprises Jacko Maree, whose name is synonymous with Standard Bank; former deputy Minister of Finance Mcebisi Jonas; the former Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel, and the executive chairperson of the Afropulse Group, Phumzile Langeni. He also appointed an economic advisor, Trudi Makhanya, the first woman to hold such a position in a domain that has long been dominated by men.

Rebuilding the country’s credibility and convincing investors that we are open to business will be a tough act to perform, especially since we are still in a transition between the fall of Zuma and the general elections in less than 18 months’ time.

Although these early gestures of appointing envoys to market the country abroad are unlikely to generate economic dividends in an instant and may very well fail to attract a critical mass of investment any time soon, they are nonetheless important signals for boosting the damaged morale of the country.

Cajoling the investor community is not sufficient on its own. We’ve been there before. Institutional and policy shifts at the domestic level are what matter the most. Branding a country is not like selling widgets abroad. It requires a complex repertoire of projecting shared identity, values, and clear interests in a well-articulated fashion. This will not happen overnight, especially because the remnants of the previous administration are still with us. The shadow of Zuma’s legacy continues to hover above us, and this will terrify us yet more during his court appearances on corruption charges.

There is important symbolism in Ramaphosa’s nation-branding exercise, as it marks a departure from Zuma’s era. As Simon Anholt, the leading expert on nation-branding, put it, suggests that nation branding needs to be based on a long-term strategy for the country and its place in the world. Policy thrust, organisational co-ordination, and execution are all critical in successfully projecting a nation’s brand, and hopefully turning around its economic fortunes. Nation-branding cannot be an end in itself. Rather it is an instrument to project identity, values, goals, and a sense of purpose on the international stage.

There have been many occasions in the past when South Africa would parachute heavyweights abroad to communicate the message that the country is open for business. Both Pravin Gordhan, when he was still finance minister under President Jacob Zuma, and the immediate former finance minister Malusi Gigaba used investment promotion as part of their agenda when attending meetings of the IMF and the World Bank. They would work closely with the business community on honing the message South Africa wants to amplify abroad.

These efforts did not bear much fruit partly because the political leadership lacked credibility. They also did not take off successfully because institutions were numbed, there was no sound programme to seriously drive economic recovery and put forward a proper economic policy framework, and there was a sense that government and society were pulling in different directions. If the public does not trust its leaders it will be difficult for foreigners to do so. The priority should be to fix the social compact at home. Such a social compact must be underpinned by economic policies that are fit for purpose, especially to respond emphatically to high youth unemployment, under-performance of certain sectors of the economy, social marginalisation, and deepening inequalities.

For nations to successfully brand themselves, Anholt argues, they need to pay attention to three factors: the first is what he refers to as strategy, which entails the sense of identity of a nation and where it stands today both in reality and with respect to to internal and external perceptions. It is not just enough to influence external perceptions; changing our governance and institutional reality to work for South Africans should be primary. It is not evident that we have, as a country, a shared sense of who we are as South Africans and what our collective aspirations are. Instead, we are a nation that is in low intensity warfare with itself; and leadership anchorage, beyond rhetoric, necessary to address our fears and mobilise our aspirations towards a positive end is yet to emerge.

The second is what Anholt refers to as the factor of substance in nation-branding, which is about effective execution of strategy in the form of new economic, legal, political, social, cultural, and educational activity. South Africa has not had shortage of policies in the past two decades, but lack of capability and tools to implement them. It is one thing to have inspiring leaders at the top, and quite another to optimise bureaucracy through talent, norms, and culture of performance so that government delivers faithfully on the policy commitments. There is currently high rhetoric and low substance on the policy implementation front.

The final component is symbolic action. This covers aspects such as innovations, structures, legislation, reforms, investments, institutions or policies that are memorable about a country. In the case of South Africa, the golden age of nation-building that is still remembered is associated with President Mandela’s era or Thabo Mbeki’s presidency with its thrust on economic reforms and enhancing South Africa’s stature on the global stage. These were not perfect eras, but they had a powerful symbolic value, and were morally uplifting in different ways.

The basis for nation-branding during these two periods was founded on the substance of domestic institutional and policy change, as well as a positive collective esteem that derived from the quality of leadership. Ramaphosa’s presidency will almost start from scratch in building a sound basis for social and economic progress. He will have to be innovative in doing so and draw upon an array of talent that is outside his own party.

Any effort to rebrand South Africa should begin at the domestic level – to galvanise a new national consciousness about who we are, what values we share, and what goals we aspire to achieve as a nation. Given that we are a pluralistic society, there will need to be compromises in the ordering of these goals. In the first decade of our democracy, compromise was fashioned to normalise race relations, to cultivate reconciliation, and to achieve nation-building. Today this has to be geared to improving the welfare of the marginalised sectors of the population, and policies should reflect bias towards this sector.

While it is good to make a strong drive to promote South Africa abroad, and to build up a well of goodwill, our success as a country depends largely on what we do at home to set a high standard for leadership, to improve norms of accountability, to rebuild institutions, and to respond to the aspirations of the majority who are still on the social margins. DM


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