Solly Moeng | SA must speak up on coronavirus crisis management

Solly Moeng
Solly Moeng

While the eyes of many analysts and other observers were on Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, this week, as he provided monetary substance to the undertakings made by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his recent State of the Nation Address, SA Tourism was doing what it does best: making sure South Africa remains the top business tourism destination in Africa.

This year, the organisation hosted its 15th Meetings Africa - one of its two signature annual events, the other one being Africa's Tourism Indaba that it hosts in Durban at the beginning of May.

Over the years, Meetings Africa has become the continent's premier business events trade show. It brings together industry professionals from across the world to experience business tourism events, facilities and services from all over the African continent, not just South Africa.

Perceptions do matter

But the 2020 Meetings Africa occurred in a rather difficult time given and, especially, because of the recent outbreak of Covid-19 (aka coronavirus) in China.

As I write this, over 86 000 cases have been diagnosed worldwide, with nearly 80 000 of these in China, and almost 3 000 deaths have been reported. Some 15 important Chinese delegates had to cancel their trip to South Africa as a result of curbs on overseas travel from mainland China.

Also, it doesn't help that fears continue to be raised that if the virus is not contained quickly in sub-Saharan Africa, it could spread fast and wide and healthcare systems could quickly become overwhelmed. Earlier this week, Nigeria confirmed the first case in the region.

Perceptions of Africa's unpreparedness to deal with any possible outbreak are not good for the continent's image. They should not be left unchallenged. Africa is not one homogenous country with one government and one health and immigration system.   US Press TV reported recently that billionaire and software developer, Bill Gates, warned that the coronavirus could incapacitate the health services of Africa and trigger a pandemic which may lead to 10 million deaths on the continent.

Speaking at the annual meeting of an American Scientific Society in Seattle, Washington, Gates told his audience that "this disease, if it's in Africa, is more dramatic than if it's in China".

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It's important that South African authorities counter the negative messages with more publicity about strong measures that have been put in place, especially at the country's major ports of entry, to scan new arrivals and to place into quarantine anyone who might be suspected to be carrying the virus.

Such messages can be supported by business industry professional bodies such as the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry (UFI), whose Chief Operations Officer, Sonia Thomas, jetted in from Paris France, to attend the 2020 Meetings Africa.

Thomas did not hesitate to express her satisfaction with the manner in which scans are carried out at OR Tambo International to prevent the virus from entering South Africa. This followed her organisation's president, Mary Larking, acknowledging that the spread of Covid-19 was responsible for the cancellation or postponement of events of all kinds all over the world.   

Lessons in crisis management

The rest of South Africa can learn a lot from the Western Cape, following the 2016-2019 water crisis. In 2017-2018, the provincial economy lost an estimated R1bn in potential tourism revenue when many tours were either cancelled or postponed.

While the provincial authorities did a sterling job of engaging local communities and getting people to change their behaviour around the scarce water resources, they had underestimated the impact on perceptions in several tourism source markets overseas, where there was almost zero messaging on steps being taken to deal with the crisis.

Members of an Indian cricket team that visited Cape Town at the beginning of 2018 returned home to spread the news that they were not allowed to take baths and that even showers were highly restricted.

Some potential delegates to the inaugural Brand Summit South Africa, which took place in May 2018 in Cape Town, also cancelled their planned travel as a result of those social media reports by members of the cricket team.      

The challenge for South Africa is that it cannot speak on behalf of the whole African continent, nor can it be seen to be turning its back on the rest of the continent.

But often, brands that have a fairly positive image have to strategically stand aside from their 'mother/associate brands' in order to protect themselves and to recover without having to engage in endless, unwinnable conversations over which they can exercise little influence. These are hard steps to take for destination brands, especially where politics are involved.

It was the case with the DA led Western Cape during the 10 years of state capture in the ANC-controlled parts of South Africa. How could Cape Town and the Western Cape continue to market themselves as relatively clean, relatively corruption-free regional brands apart from the rest of the country they are part of without appearing to be pushing for cessation at a time when much of the global discourse about South Africa was focused on 'what was being done to Nelson Mandela's country?' 

In the same way, South Africa remains the leading African destination for the global business tourism sector.

It might have better systems than many on the continent to protect itself from any outbreak of Covid-19, but it would be seen as political blunder, even betrayal by some, were the country to stand aside from the rest of the continent in order to demonstrate that its systems are more advanced and ready to deal with any local outbreak of the virus than some of its continental peers.

The 2020 Meetings Africa should offer a perfect platform for the authorities to work with business tourism industry bodies and others on the continent to come up with and announce positive, reassuring messages for those who doubt Africa's resolve that all is being done to mitigate the challenges of today in order to grow Africa's share of the lucrative global business tourism pie. The necessary growth cannot happen in a climate of negative perceptions about or low levels of confidence in destination Africa.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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