So there I was on the first day of an international conference in a far-off locale, sitting with strangers during the lunch hour.Introductions were made, with each person stating what country he/she came from and what his/her profession was. When my turn came around one of my new acquaintances piped up: “Hah, your president has just married his fifth wife hasn’t he?”It was in the week that news had been confirmed: Jacob Zuma was about to take Bongi Ngema as a fourth current wife. Everyone’s eyes lit up and their ears perked up like those of a dog hearing a whistle. I confirmed the news, but corrected the number. Nobody was interested in my technical corrections. This lowly newspaperman then became the centre of attention and was peppered with questions – amid much hilarity – about the mechanics of polygamy.This lot, who were all vaguely familiar with South African current affairs, then wanted to know whether it was the need to feed the many wives and many children that drove the president of my country to corruption.In an attempt to shut down the discussion and move on to other topics, I explained that polygamy was not such a common thing in South Africa and that the president’s gluttonous nocturnal habits were an object of curiosity and derision in the country. He was not our normal, I tried to argue to my sceptical companions who refused to believe a person who was an aberration could have risen to become president.Anyway, I took the whole thing in my stride but jokes about Zuma’s foibles felt different from doing so with outsiders. It was as if your country was being mocked.What hurt the most about that conversation – and made me more furious about Zuma – was that among those who were laughing so loudly at South Africa were people who came from countries for which today Donald Trump would have had a certain description. And there they were, making my relatively advanced and sophisticated country a butt of jokes.But those were the Zuma years, the period in which even those from countries which Trump describes in colourful language felt we were fair game.This week participants at the inaugural South Africa Brand Summit in Cape Town lamented the damage Zuma had done to the country brand.Business Leadership SA’s Themba Maseko spoke about how a wonderful country story that evolved through peaceful transition, the building blocks of a democratic society, the consolidation of fiscal responsibility and gaining clout in international diplomacy had been derailed.He sketched a picture of a country that was struggling through its challenges in a dignified manner and trying its best to correct the wrongs of the past in an informed and sustainable way. A story of a country with hope.Then came the Zuma and the attendant culture of corruption, state capture, maladministration, the disastrous governance decisions, instability and loss of standing. In no time we went from being one of the world’s most admired and promising stories to being on the watch list of countries that were headed for failed-state status. Such was the effect of the man from Nkandla on our country brand.Now that Zuma is out of our lives – with his only chance of elected office being on to the executive of Miles Bhudu’s prisoners’ rights lobby group – we can resume the business of building the country brand. In just three months since Zuma’s departure South Africa is starting to feel like a serious country again.Mosebenzi Zwane, Des van Rooyen and Faith Muthambi no longer blot our screens and bombard our ears with dangerous gumpf. The ever-chewing minister is tucked away in some obscure corner and we are spared the sight of her masticating endlessly.There is a sense that things are being fixed and a hope that we are getting off the rocky part of the road.Gradually South Africans, the owners of the brand, are feeling positive about their country again. No longer is there that feeling that we are heading for the cliff.Internationally, important decision makers are listening to what we have to say. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we must know that it is early days. The ANC’s post-conference wars are only just beginning. Many on the losing side are finding it difficult to accept fully the outcome of Nasrec and have begun regrouping. Some on the winning side are impatient that they have not tasted the spoils of victory fully and not seen the losing side squirm. This can destabilise progress.Unless managed properly, the toxic land debate, which has become more of a race proxy war than a land reform discussion, also poses a risk to rebuilding our country. As does the now ubiquitous sight of violent protests and strikes which turn ugly.Political leadership obviously has to lead in turning the brand around but society as a whole will have to play a role. Choose the role you want to play in rebuilding the country we will all be proud to call ours.