It’s all in the brand image

A few months ago South Africa was given a klap in the face when it failed to garner enough votes to have Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected to lead the African Union Commission.

Following that African klap, all sorts of assumptions and theories were bandied about, trying to make sense of it all. Some observers couldn’t understand how a regional economic power, supposedly with all the cloud to influence decisions in bi-national and multi-national forums on the continent and elsewhere, could have failed so dismally in such an apparently simply endeavor. Others were not surprised at all; they had seen it coming. The latter group made references to South Africa’s perceived arrogance in other parts of the continent, the country’s alleged tendency to play ‘big brother’ in Africa and to disregard the feelings of other African nations in wanting all powerful positions for itself. Its apparent disregard of an unwritten rule, a gentlemen’s agreement styled rule, that only Africa’s smaller powers should forward nominees to head African multi-national institutions, was badly received by Nigeria, a regional powerhouses in its own right. Other observers had seen South Africa’s 2011 integration of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) group of nations as the last straw. One thing that became clear is that South Africa had underestimated sentiments about it elsewhere on the African continent.


In branding terms, the gulf between South Africa’s brand identity (how it wants to be seen) and its brand image (how it is seen) was proven to be much wider than had been estimated by South African foreign policy makers.

At a subsequent Institute of Security Studies (ISS) seminar, a few weeks later, an African researcher described South Africa as an immature adolescent who carried on as if he knew all the answers and that he was better informed than the elderly people in the room, refusing to take advice from any of them.

Post-apartheid South Africa, especially beginning under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, has tended to describe political decisions made by other African governments as being influenced by former colonial powers, especially France, and of telling European powers to stop meddling in African affairs. That is when the “African solutions for African problems” mantra, led by Thabo Mbeki and opportunistically supported by the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, began to gain prominence. The assumption was that countries like France continued to hold sway over the political elites of some countries on the continent, even telling them which way to vote on major issues at the UN and other multi-national forums. The former colonies of France, South Africa is seen to assume, are still babies who rely on their not-so-former colonial master for basic political decision-making.

Needless to say, this comportment on the part of South Africa’s political leadership has done damage to the image of brand South Africa on the continent. It is hard to obtain respect from people who do not feel respected by the one seeking to be taken seriously. The majority of the countries in Africa obtained their political emancipation in the early 1960s. Their post-independence relationships with their former colonial masters have evolved through the decades, perfectly or imperfectly. While some colonial umbilical cords were brutally ripped-off at the point of independence, others were dislodged gently over time in an attempt, apparently, to ensure a level of socio-political stability in the newly independent African states.

Historians, armed with hindsight, will give us a verdict of which method of separation was better than the other. But the point here is that despite its economic wealth, South Africa is seen by many of its African peers as a mere baby in ‘independence circles’. Instead of going about telling them how to manage their relationships with former colonial masters, South Africa should be learning from them as well. South Africa’s African narrative seems as if it was scripted in the 1960s, promoted as if time has not moved since then. This country, many say, must stop behaving like an overly excited juvenile who has just tasted his first kiss.

Questions being asked by researchers and observers revolve around the extent to which South African foreign policy – especially in Africa – is informed by reliable data obtained from scientifically sound research. What kinds of people are employed in South African embassies and consulates in Africa? Do these people conduct (or commission) regular research in order to understand socio-political trends and key decision and opinion influencers in Africa? How many South Africans, as opposed, for instance, to Nigerians, are employed at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and other African institutions of power? At what levels of influence are these people employed and to what extent do they play a role in facilitating processes that favour their country of origin? South Africans are known to only want to be employed in senior, decision-making levels of multi-national organisations; is this sufficient to secure the country’s influence in the organisational cultures of these institutions?

What image of brand South Africa do middle-level influencers in these organisations harbor? Do they look up to South Africa or are they threatened by it? Do South African policy-makers ask themselves these questions? Do they understand the importance of doing so or do they want to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, like when Bafana-Bafana (the South African national soccer team) failed, for having misread the rules, to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations?

The jury is still out as to whether the ground work done by South Africa after earlier humiliation will bear the desired fruit when elections take place again for the head of the African Union Commission in July in Addis Ababa. Many observers still doubt whether South Africa is seen to have convincingly mended its attitude towards other African nations and humbled its over-inflated image of self-importance.

At the 55th National Conference of the Public Relations Institute of southern Africa (PRISA), of which I am the President-elect, I asked former Minister in the Presidency, Mr Essop Pahad, one of the keynote speakers, whether, in his view, the country’s current political leadership understood the power of Public Relations. His very carefully worded reply was, “not quite; although the ANC has, over the years, understood the power of Public Relations and employed many PR stratagems to win international sympathy and support; it never referred to what it was doing as Public Relations per se. The decision to use the image of Nelson Mandela instead of another political prisoner, e.g. Walter Sisulu, in the highly successful ‘Release Mandela’ campaign, had also been deliberate, aimed at focusing attention on the aura around Nelson Mandela with full knowledge that others would also benefit from the success of the campaign”, he said. The ANC understood the need to win hearts and minds then. Now in power, it is no longer certain that this former liberation movement still cares what others think of it. It has been argued over and over again, for instance, that the ANC will have to work very hard on its brand image in order to win the Western Cape in a free and fair election. Evoking the name of the ruling party at many dinner tables in the Western Capes now evokes a combination of fear, ridicule, disbelief, and outright dismissal by many people.

Brand South Africa, formely the International Marketing Council (IMC) of South Africa, is preparing a series of perception studies, one targeted at the South African diaspora in several countries of strategic interest for South Africa, another at foreign nationals in these countries. I wonder to what extent the outcome of these studies will be taken seriously in policy-making.

Solly MOENG, Cape Town based Brand Management Consultant and President-elect of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA)