Soon after the end of apartheid and the dawn of South Africa’s new democracy, thousands of African immigrants began flooding into the country from across the Limpopo to look for new opportunities and a new life. They would not do so during apartheid, of course, because South Africa was a pariah state shunned by much of the world and the continent for its known and well-recorded human rights abuses; or simply, for apartheid, the first thing that came to mind whenever its name came up in conversations.
The new African arrivals came in many categories. They were highly educated professionals who simply wanted to be part of the new dream; they were also uneducated and semi-skilled Africans who had just found a country that promised to be better than most, on the continent, and far from Europe but with some of the ‘developed world’ pecks such as world-class infrastructure that was far more developed than what they had in their own countries. A Gabonese Ambassador I took on a visit to metropolitan Johannesburg marvelled at the modern freeways and described South Africa as “European with an African flavour.”
Some African immigrants flew into the country while others drove into South Africa from neighbouring countries to experience the country many had been forced to stay away from for many decades. Many others, the undocumented ones, are known to have walked into the country after risking their lives crossing dangerous game parks and sharp or electrified security fences along the country’s borders. Others simply paid bribes at border posts and made their way into South Africa; the promised land.
During those days, South Africa was known as a country that managed a relatively smooth transition from a horrific and dehumanising system of apartheid into to a dynamic democracy that held a lot of promise for its own people, for the African continent and for the world. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights, together with the impressive basket of Chapter Nine Institutions that would ensure that the promises we made to ourselves and to the rest of world would not remain just empty words only, were celebrated across the world and cited in many academic studies as the most progressive.
Nelson Mandela lived the values that underpinned our country’s young democracy, all enshrined in the Constitution. He reminded all those who could listen – and that was almost everyone – that South Africa would never again be a country where one group would oppress another.
He wanted our foreign policy to be underpinned by consideration for human rights, including the rights of children, women, people living with disabilities, as well as Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transexuals, Intersexuals, and Queers (LGBTIQ). This meant that whenever South Africa’s representatives in bi-national and multilateral forums found themselves with a choice between selfish political interests and the defence of the rights of threatened communities, they would stand for the latter.
But we know that this has not always been the case since Mandela left office and subsequently passed away. Post Mandela leaders have defended the likes of Mugabe, Al Bashir, either refused to meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama or deliberately frustrated three attempts by him to visit South Africa again after he was hosted by Nelson Mandela despite reported attempts by China to stop this from happening.
As I write this, the governing ANC, Mandela’s political home, is still determined to withdraw South Africa’s status as signatory to the Rome Statutes and from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. It is unclear whose interests stand to be served by such a withdrawal, if not the interests of despots who have reasons to hide from the law.
Impact on country/nation brand reputation
Arguably, Jacob Zuma’s leadership has left the most negative impact on South Africa’s former sterling image. Across Africa, people are either laughing at us or crying with us. And the xenophobic attacks that happened in the past few years have not helped.
To most fellow Africans who have been looking at South Africa as the one country that had a chance to prove to the world that Blacks could lead a modern democracy, the most industrialised economy in Africa, successfully, the Zuma years have been a disappointing failure.
In order to regain the country/nation brand lustre it has lost, as well as respect in the rest of the continent, South Africa has to go through a process of 1) Understanding the impact of what really happened and how it came to pass, 2) Agreeing on measures to put in place to make sure none of it ever happens again and, 3) Developing credible reputation recovery measures that will help it onto a climb back journey. Such a climb back will not happen organically, in the absence of a clear plan and knowledgeable drivers with adequate resources.
High powered local and international delegates at the upcoming South Africa Brand Summit (www.sabrandsummit.co.za), a local private sector initiative that will be opened by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, will discuss ways to strengthen South Africa’s country brand positioning in order to help the country regain lost reputational appeal and strengthen chances of a sustainable economic recovery.