building_iconsSINCE this past weekend, South Africa has come together to mourn the sudden death of one of the country’s most respected government ministers.

We’re not quite there yet, but South Africans are increasingly good at overcoming historic differences and holding hands together as one when something – good or bad – faces the whole nation. But it is still rare that a government minister attracts so much widespread admiration across all lines.

A number of other ANC government ministers have died in the past and only managed to attract an outpouring of sympathy from the ranks of the former liberation movement and the left side of the political spectrum. The late Mbeki-era health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, probably tops the list of the most polarised former ministers.

Those who cried at her passing did so mostly on the basis of the role she is said to have played in the fight against apartheid; or on the basis of ‘ubuntu’ and not because they would miss the sterling work she did while she was health minister; she did no such thing.

Most admired departed politicians

Others who were celebrated mainly on the middle-to-left side of the political spectrum include the late Steve Tshwete, Joe Modise, Stella Sigcau, Joe Slovo and a few others.

Few will argue that the list of the most widely admired dead politicians is topped by former president Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Dullah Omar and Kader Asmal, even though the latter had become a bit of a thorn in the flesh in the eyes of the ANC at the time of his death.

These were, on the whole, good ambassadors for the ANC because the image they represented generally demonstrated that “the ANC was not so bad after all”.

ANC spin doctors were also aware of the pulling power of the personal brands surrounding the good ambassadors. They tried on many occasions to publicly claim them as true representatives of what the ANC stands for – examples that others should emulate.

But it became hard for them to lay an exclusive claim on Nelson Mandela – the big fish in terms of personal political brand association – because the whole nation, across all political and racial divides, had already placed a national claim on his head. We know of the many times strategic visits were arranged, often with the media expressly invited, to the home of the ailing Nelson Mandela. Some of these visits seemed to happen whenever President Jacob Zuma and the ANC needed a boost of positive energy.

Outrage over Mandela exploitation

We also know that such visits and use of the ailing and visibly tired Nelson Mandela often backfired; like when they put him in a helicopter to attend a political rally in the Eastern Cape, or when Zuma and his entourage posed for pictures with a visibly tired and ‘absent’ Mandela who, disturbed by the flashing cameras, seemed confused by what was going on in his living room. The whole nation was outraged.

Looked at from the perspective of the main opposition party, the DA, it is reasonable to cynically suggest that they would do anything to torpedo any attempt by the ANC to lay an exclusive claim on Nelson Mandela. Their spin doctors would also have known that as far as political personal brands go, Mandela was the big catch.

Given that millions of South Africans are still driven by emotion and historic allegiances in forming their voting decisions – increasingly misplaced as these have become – it would have been a huge blunder for the DA to let all associations with Mandela be linked solely to the ANC.

Since they could not argue this politically, for Nelson Mandela’s political legacy was near impossible to yank away from the tight grip of the ANC, they resorted to ‘ubuntu’, arguing that Mandela was too old and unwell to be used for propping up the image of a less admired politician or the electoral fortunes of the ANC.

The DA was often successful in rallying the support of South Africans behind such calls for the ageing Mandela to be left alone.

While not of the same political stature as Nelson Mandela, the late Collins Chabane was, no doubt, as competent, articulate, hard-working, goal-orientated and approachable as many describe him to be. He was a good ambassador for Zuma’s government because people who dealt with him, irrespective of political affiliation, trusted him as a man they could do business with and felt that with people like him in the executive, there was reason to remain hopeful that all is not lost.

There are others who remain, but very few; Pravin Gordhan, Nhlanhla Nene and, even though no longer in government, Trevor Manuel. But we shall not erect statues for those who are still walking yet.

All major brands have good ambassadors and bad ambassadors. Each brand should know how to use the good ambassadors – be they products, services or personalities – to boost their image. Eskom is currently a bad ambassador for BrandSA; so is Jacob Zuma for the ANC.

As far as Mandela-style unifying political personal brands go, we are still orphaned; but the likes of Chabane are potential bridge builders.