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Convened by Brand South Africa under the theme: “Enhancing the ease of doing business in South Africa,” the organisers sought to exercise the minds of panellists and participants on ways of “Improving the competitiveness of the South African nation brand”.
A vast and expansive subject, the discussion was a short-hand metaphor for the intricate and tortuous work that the country must undertake to respond to the plethora of challenges ranging from unemployment, poverty, inequality and our self and external image.
There are two striking notables about the discussion.
The one is its sheer importance in a national climate that does not always inspire confidence for its discordant tunes.
As the discussion was taking place, the country was reeling from the wanton destruction of public and private property, abuse and killing of women and non-South African citizens that has sadly become common occurrences.
Facilitated by the real-time transmission of news and information, both incidents reverberated across the continent and the world no sooner than they occurred.
The other was that it followed hot on the heels of last week’s release of an economic discussion document by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni.
Some of the document’s critics excoriated it for the minister’s alleged failure to subject it to internal party discussion processes – despite the fact that it is an outcome of an agreement by the ruling party’s economic transformation sub-committee meeting of more than two months ago – and it’s supposed neo-liberalism, which is stated more than it is demonstrated by argument.
The Cape Town discussion points to the growing sensitivity to the enormity of the challenges before us, the responsibility we have to confront them head-on and the consequences of a possible failure to do so.
As we witnessed this week, ongoing events that have turned some of our cities into mini war zones began to attract inevitable negative responses from beyond our borders, while the national mood further drowned in harrowing revelations of the abuse and killing of women; which undoubtedly also keep age-old stereotypes and pseudo-scientific gibberish about our part of the world alive.
Taken together or viewed in isolation, these incidents do not advance the competitiveness of the South African nation brand.
What then do we do about the brand South Africa?
The first suggestion one wishes to make is that we must be at one in the understanding that the South African nation brand is important, first and foremost, to and for ourselves. We should build and nurture it because it is in the national interest.
Secondly, and for its significance to our own self-image, the Cape Town discussion provides an opportunity to rally the country in a national conversation about who we truly are, what we should exorcise from the South Africa of the moment and promote in search of a compact which eventually comes to be the distinct identity features and characteristics of the post-apartheid South Africa.
Here, the constitution of the republic can serve as a useful guide. It enjoins us to build a just, united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa which recognises and commits to healing the injustices and divisions of our past, and to improve the “quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.
The third suggestion is that government and corporate South Africa have no less of a role in helping to shape the nation brand. If one were to proffer unsolicited counsel to business, it would be to reiterate the views of Anglo American PLC CEO Mark Cutifani, expressed in 2013 and 2015 respectively: “the job of those who have stewardship of capital is to support society” and “South Africa could meet its challenges once government and the private sector stopped talking past each other”.
Since national brands belong in the subjective and imaginary intangible realms that reinforce or otherwise subtract from nations’ concrete endeavours, their construction also involves a measure of myth-making which is largely enabled by the existence of a national consensus on the nation’s distinct identity markers and characteristics which promote a sense of belonging.
A point that cannot be overemphasised is that there is a limit to the extent that a society whose basic resource allocation reflects the colonial and apartheid social pyramid hierarchy can facilitate a sense of belonging.
In July 2007, the then National Religious Leaders Working Group, which formed part of the various presidential working groups at the time, commenced a discussion on an ethical code which was intended for promotion in schools.
Politics unfortunately overtook its finalisation, and it withered on the vine.
It would be worth our while to return to that discussion, broadly to reflect on the intangible elements that can possibly form part of the post-apartheid South Africa.
Such a discussion can draw on various sources and fields – such as religious doctrines, propositions from social theory, our diverse cultural and social norms and values.
The fourth suggestion is that at a time when the national brand is up against the rocky, sharp piercing points of narrow self-preservation and interest, it is obvious that government in particular should increasingly assume the role of a civic educator, if only to shine the spotlight on the hypnotising oaths and offerings of ONongqawuse of our times.
Lastly, we must claw back on some basics; one of which must surely be that the institution of government – as political formations should be – is an organised cooperative that speaks and acts harmoniously and in unison; not a multiple-tongued creature, each speaking a sovereign dialect.
This is especially crucial in a discussion about brands which have manuals and templates by which all users are required strictly to abide. And it would help a great deal if politicians deferred to the president, minister and department of international relations and cooperation on matters international.
This too is not incidental to the critical issue of the construction of the national brand.
– Ratshitanga is a consultant, and a social and political commentator (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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