WHEN George W Bush was President of the United States of America, the world experienced America at, arguably, its angriest, arrogant and violent state since the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the US Naval Base in Hawaii. Within a year after George W Bush won the US presidency, terrorists planned and successfully executed a series of attacks in New York and Washington, using hijacked passenger planes, and totally destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on Manhattan, partially destroyed the Pentagon, and killed some 3000 people in the process.
Furious and driven by the desire to track down and follow the snake into its hole, wherever it was found, George W Bush quickly divided the world into two parts; those who were with America and those who were against America. He made it clear to everyone that there could be no middle ground for any country. In his quest to hunt down the suspected leaders of the terrorists behind the attacks, he was prepared to shoot first and ask questions later, and that is exactly what the US military, of which he was Commander-in-Chief, did in many cases.
Many innocent people were killed in countries that were targeted by America. Where proof of complicity with the terrorists could not be produced, it was imagined and, in some cases, even fabricated. An understandably sympathetic, yet worried world community could only stand by and watch, because while it understood the anger, it lacked the power to reason with the angry bear that was America at the time, even in United Nations debates.
The world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders in countries like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan paid the ultimate price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The image of brand America took a nose dive in perceptions the world over.
Many people either feared or loathed America for its actions, justified by it as the “war against terror”. For as long as he got what he wanted, i.e. track down and arrest or kill anyone who was suspected to have ties with the perpetrators of what became known as the ‘September 11 attacks”, George W Bush did not give a toss about what the world thought of him and America.
It took the of 2009 arrival of President Barack Obama into the US Presidency for perceptions about brand America to start thawing, warming up for the best. He brought a young-looking, fresh face that promised to build more bridges of friendship for America and to end unnecessary wars. His handsome looks and oratorical gift saw him being received with open arms wherever he went.
Quickly understanding the need to go on a charm offensive in Europe and the Middle-East, he travelled to Berlin, Germany in July 2008, in the middle of a presidential campaign, and got a rapturous reception by more than a million German citizens who lapped his words like he was a messiah.
This visit was followed by another, in June 2009, to Egypt, where he addressed students at the University of Cairo, promising them a better America; one that would go out to mend fences and build bridges with the Arab world. Like with the Brandenburg Gate speech in Germany almost a year earlier, whatever negative feelings people might have felt towards America during the George W Bush years seemed to dissipate in a cloud following the Obama address in Cairo. They believed him and were willing to give brand America another chance.
Now, Mmusi Maimane is no Barack Obama, even though many seem to believe that is where he gets his oratorical inspiration from. And he probably often sees Obama when he looks in the mirror. He is also not a new President of South Africa. But to many, his election as the first ever black leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the second biggest and historically white opposition party in our national parliament, heralds a new era in our national politics.
Ironically, and even before he starts spending his political capital, his election confirms the health of South Africa’s multi-party dispensation. If he heeds good counsel and spends his political capital well over the next twelve months, he may well lead to an unprecedented change in South Africans’ voting patterns and a reversal of fortunes for brand SA, which has taken a lot of beating in recent years and months.
In a world where brand image can make or break fortunes, the quality of political leadership can attract or discourage new investments. Our country’s image is in desperate need of a reprieve from the onslaught that it has been receiving of late.
It needs a leader who can go out there and assure the world that, orphaned as we are following Mandela’s passing, we’re still a country and economy to reckon with and that we can still be looked up to as a robust African world player.
Which political party will give us the national leader we so badly need as we head towards the 2016 local government elections?