The processes under way to understand the reach of the horrors visited upon South Africa by the past 10 years of Jacob Zuma’s leadership – for lack of a better word – will continue for many months, perhaps even several years, before a full report of the damage and the role of each enabler will be presented to us.
Looking back at it all we can be thankful that the Zuma era, in particular, has presented us with an opportunity to ask afresh what we want South Africa to be best known for and associated with at home, in the rest of Africa, and across the globe.
Only a few will deny with a straight face that as a country/nation brand, we have lost much of the innocence and appeal we enjoyed at the dawn of our democracy, especially during the steady leadership of former president Nelson Mandela and the early years of Thabo Mbeki’s leadership, before his second term.
We used to be 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, with the impressive basket of chapter 9 institutions that would ensure 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.
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 and people living with disabilities, as well as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transexuals, intersexuals and queers. This meant that whenever South Africa’s representatives in binational 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 died. Post-Mandela leaders have defended the likes of Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir, and either refused to meet Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama or deliberately frustrated three attempts by him to visit South Africa again after he was hosted by Mandela, despite reported attempts by China to stop this from happening.
As I write this, our leaders are 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 withdrawals, 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 effect on South Africa’s former sterling image. Across Africa people are either laughing at us or crying with us. The jealous ones are happy that we have become a “normal” African state with leaders who are doing what their peers have been doing elsewhere on the continent since the early years of independence, in the 1960s. To them, it was just a matter of time before South Africa became like other African states.
But to fellow Africans, who have been looking at South Africa as the one country that stood 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.
The erosion of taxpayer trust in the SA Revenue Service and the heightened racial tension that resulted from negative political sloganeering and the use of Bell Pottinger to drive a racially divisive message in the society, have further contributed to loss of confidence in South Africa as a country that can be trusted to do business with. None of this was helped by Zuma’s mindless Cabinet reshuffles that were reportedly driven by a private family that controlled his political decisions and a mining minister who came up with a charter out of nowhere, the development of which did not follow requisite consultative processes with key industry and community stakeholders. The country seemed rudderless.
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The loss of taxpayer and investor confidence left the country’s revenue collection with an estimated R50 billion shortfall and big businesses said to be holding on to hundreds of billions of rands that they were hesitant to inject into the economy to stimulate activity and a possible recovery that would, if managed sustainably, eventually lead to the creation of an inclusive economy offering more South Africans a warmer place under the sun.
To regain the country/nation brand lustre it has lost, South Africa has to go through a process of 1) Understanding the effect 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 on to a climb-back journey.
Such a climb will not happen organically, in the absence of a clear plan and knowledgable 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 to help the country regain lost reputational appeal and strengthen chances of a sustainable economic recovery.