When police in France shot and killed a teenager in a Paris suburb on 27 June, the subsequent riots resulted in parts of some of the country’s cities burning. Many countries, the US among them, issued travel advisories warning their citizens to exercise caution when visiting France.
On 7 August it was South Africa’s turn, with the British High Commission in Pretoria issuing a notice in response to the strike called by the Western Cape branch of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco).
It asked travellers to delay driving “to and from Cape Town International Airport until the route is cleared”.
The Australians and Americans issued similar advisories, as they are obliged to do, about “ongoing transit strikes in Cape Town” and their “potential to turn violent”.
This is where perception enters the fray.
As reported by Euronews on 7 July, the French tourism association president said: “We want to reassure our European and international tourists that France is a hospitable country.” The only reassurances from South Africa regarding the taxi violence have been detailed explanations of measures taken to assure public safety by Cape Town’s mayor, the local police and public officials.
Unless I missed it, the national government chose not to speak about the damage done to the country’s image by what was clearly politically instigated and orchestrated criminal behaviour.
“As much as I love South Africa and want to support the beleaguered tourism industry, I won’t put my neck on the block to convince anxious travellers that SA isn’t troubled.”
This comment was posted by a US-based tour operator this week. It was in response to the deluge of messages that flooded the tourism industry WhatsApp groups when the Santaco strike turned violent.
“Educated Americans hear enough negativity in the news about SA to rather want to look at doing a safari anywhere except in SA. Single women don’t want to travel to SA… too scared,” she added.
This is tragic because South Africa has among the finest tourist products in the world. The hospitality and overall visitor experience is as good as it gets, especially in the high-end market that attracts well-heeled, curious travellers with dollars to spend.
These dollars not only sustain the ubiquitous “one-salary-feeds-10” tourism equation, but also go towards creating and nurturing the careers and future of rural and sometimes urban people who otherwise, for the most part, would have little hope in an economy held together largely by the efforts of the private sector.
Taking a step back, until the ANC lost (or started plotting in earnest) its way through the corridors of cadre deployment and its associated corruption, there was a significant amount of traveller goodwill, driven mostly by images, memories and tales of Nelson Mandela. Depending on who you speak to, those good feelings have largely left the building, and South Africa now is just one of many safari destinations.
With so many beautiful locations to choose from – among them our competitor destinations – why would the international traveller bother taking the slightest risk of experiencing a negative incident? Especially when it costs a packet to get here.
It’s all perception, of course, because there cannot be a tourist industry on earth that is as well prepared to deal with crises as South Africa’s. For the vast majority of travellers, however, as the cliché goes, perception is reality.
The images and words that have done a few viral rounds of the world are of the buses burnt, civilian cars stoned and ambulances torched in Cape Town. Not to mention a visiting British doctor murdered when he took the wrong off-ramp after leaving the airport.
This isn’t good for tourism.
South Africa is not France, one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations, which hardly noticed the impact of the riots that rocked that country. We need to present a squeaky-clean reality.
Instead of our tourism minister rising to the occasion and applauding Cape Town’s refusal to bend to the will of mafia-style taxi associations and upholding the rule of law, new Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga, the owner of nursing and midwifery qualifications, accused the City of Cape Town of being “arrogant”, calling on it to release the “wrongfully impounded taxi vehicles”.
This demonstrates that South Africa is in desperate need of some reputation management guidance.
The ANC needs to cast off the organisational cloak of victim mentality kept in the parliamentary closet for suitable occasions and elections and put the best citizens in office where they can display, however tough this may be, integrity and leadership, especially when it comes to protecting the jobs and livelihoods of our citizens.
South Africa is in many ways an unbeatable destination. It now needs a government to act like it. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.