Cape Town – South Africans must “recapture” the narrative of the country, former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said at Brand Summit South Africa on Friday.
“How we are perceived does matter. We think intentions matter and we do our best based on intent, and then we are surprised if people do not understand our intentions,” she said.
“Perceptions do matter, because the person who holds the perception – for example of South Africa or South Africans – regards that as the only truth they know and the only basis on which they will make decisions and act.”
Madonsela described how South African delegations used to be treated like “kings and queens” abroad, but then perceptions of the country changed, and it was almost as if people were starting to feel sorry for South Africans, perceiving the country to have fallen “from glory to pity”.
“But even when people were feeling sorry for us, they were still looking for straws (to grab) as they wanted to believe in South Africa as the land of hope. That is why they still wanted to find something good from South Africa,” she said.
Madonsela pointed out that, regardless of the image held of South Africa abroad, some local companies have always done well globally – like Nando’s, Discovery, Old Mutual and Woolworths.
She emphasised that building the brand of the country is not just about companies, but about how each South African impacts the way each other individual sees the country.
“I met a man from Zambia who said he felt ubuntu is disappearing in South Africa and an attitude of ‘each one for him or herself’ rules when South Africans deal with visitors from other African countries.
"By contrast, I have always heard white tourists talking about the ubuntu they experienced in South Africa,” said Madonsela.
"Branding is always about that one rotten tomato that affects a country's image. People just want to be treated with respect."
Madonsela said it was raised at the summit that South Africa has fallen from grace in international perceptions.
Ramaphosa 'beacon of hope'
"The jury is, however, still out about our future. We are on a sliding scale and we caught ourselves while sliding. People are still rooting for us to go up on the scale and President Cyril Ramaphosa is a beacon of hope for us," she said.
She believes the free trade region planned in Africa opens up opportunities for the country to use because of the interaction it offers with the rest of Africa.
"We have to be seen to love Africa. We have to correct those bad apples that have presented South Africa as not loving Africans," she said.
"State capture also impacted South Africa’s brand image."
Social justice a major issue
According to Madonsela, the big issue raised at the summit is social justice and how to treat those perceived to have been advantaged by apartheid and those perceived to have been disadvantaged by it. She feels consistent messages in how to deal with these two groups are needed.
"From my side the question emerging regarding South Africa's brand is about what President Cyril Ramaphosa is going to do to improve brand SA and what the ANC is going to do or stop doing about brand SA," she said.
"South Africa is still seen as a land of hope and the country of ubuntu. We are still seen as a resilient nation that invented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that can transcend even what looks impossible by means of ethical behaviour and serving people."
She emphasised that in rebuilding brand SA, those with privilege and power in South Africa must understand that there must also be something in for those without it.
"South Africans must understand that we are in this boat together. We must work together to deal with disunity, poverty, inequality, corruption and bad governance," she said.
"If we all combine our 'webs' together, we can expand the South African brand so that it yields shared prosperity for us as South Africans and for Africa and create the world we want to live in."
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