We should never forget.
There was a time, in the mid-to-late 1990s, when, thanks to visionary leadership that knew there should never be room for a ‘winner takes all’ mentality, South Africa transformed from a pariah state to one that was the envy of the world and the promise of Africa.
SA was, for a time, living proof of the economic benefits of a progressive focus on human rights.
After the historic 1994 elections, the positive momentum reached a new level after the promulgation of our current, fifth Constitution in December 2006, following which it replaced the country's interim Constitution of 1993 and became law in February 1997.
The new Constitution – a product of multi-party negotiations with a uniquely SA flavour, broad international benchmarking, and described globally as one of the most progressive in the world – had taken relevant items from some of best constitutions at the time and gone a step further to incorporate the rights of many threatened communities, especially the LGBTIQ.
It was a first in Africa.
SA benefited from the Pink economy
Most of Africa remains stuck to this day in archaic debates about whether homosexuality is un-African or unnatural. There also remains many countries in the so-called developed world which are still having the same debates, arguing about how far they should extend the civic and legal rights enjoyed by others, in their ridiculously hetero-archaic societies, to same sex couples.
Many LGBTQI individuals and same sex couples migrated from other African countries and other parts of the world to SA, often seeking shelter from harassment and persecution in their home countries.
Places like Cape Town, meanwhile, benefited enormously from the pink economy when wealthy, discerning, LGBTQI travellers and investors added this city to their basket of destinations that included places like San Francisco, Vancouver, Sydney, Waikiki, Paris, and others, where they could travel for vacations, have fun, and inject much-needed foreign currency into the local economy.
Others even bought secondary property here, created jobs and grew the economy.
…and from the Mandela economy
Whatever one may think of him, Mandela, as a credible, attractive, and wise leader of the (then) new South Africa, became a drawcard in his own right; and the country's prestige benefited from his presence.
Politicians, sportsmen and women, artists, models, academics, human rights activists, religious leaders, successful business leaders and others from across the world came to SA on various forms of personal pilgrimage to meet and be photographed with him.
He, in turn, ensured that those who had the means left something behind for the poor of South Africa.
These visitors built schools, creches and sports fields and contributed in countless ways, bringing skills and small business development, and creating many opportunities for young South Africans to taste worlds outside the narrow ones they had been confined to from childhood; giving them reason to dream big.
Some made it big; others failed.
But the country's tax revenue collection service also benefited from the massive injection of foreign currency during Mandela's time.
Richard Branson's highly successful Virgin Active brand was brought here thanks to the Mandela effect. It all seemed effortless at the time; and it was, thanks to a country image that attracted the best and inspired them to want to be part of a dream in the making.
We thought it would last forever but we were wrong. No brand, including country brands, grows on its own, organically, without a vision, a set of values and good, ethical leadership.
And all brands are constantly in competition with others to become or remain more visible, more audible, more attractive, more credible, more authentic, more relevant, and more appealing to their target audiences. The space they do not occupy in engaging their stakeholders, including target audiences, will inevitably be occupied by others.
This is because no brand is indispensable. Country brands are no different.
The power of good
To be successful, brands must be positioned as leaders in one or several chosen categories, or forever be followers who do not set agendas or influence trends.
Led by ethical, visionary leaders who live their values and take everyone along with them when making strategic decisions, successful brands inspire others, inside and outside, citizens and foreigners.
Citizens get inspired to play their part in whatever way they can and to stand firmly behind government efforts, if such are deemed credible and well-meaning; foreigners get inspired to visit, to invest, and to relocate to the country in question and play their part in contributing skills, resources, ideas, etc. to make their adoptive country a winner.
When Mandela was president, he liked to say South Africa would be a torchbearer on human rights issues, a consideration that would underpin its foreign policy. And he was fearless in standing for and defending what he believed was right.
When the Chinese tried to stop him from hosting Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in South Africa, he made it clear that they were not to choose friends for him and South Africa.
After Mandela, who took the peace loving and humorous Tibetan spiritual leader on a walk about through the picturesque Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, the Dalai Lama was never to meet another South African president in person.
No one can deny that the once near-sterling country brand image of South Africa has taken devastating frontal blows in the past 10 years. The bulk of such blows were due to bad leadership.
When South African companies misbehave by cutting corners in countries where they operate, outside the country, they tarnish South Africa’s image; when others in fields such as sports, academia, and the military act outside of the law, they also hurt the ideal of what it means be South African.
But political leadership, because it often attracts the greatest scrutiny, also does the greatest harm to country image and damages investor confidence when it breaks the law and recognised universal rights.
Now, it will require a lot more than a change in leadership for SA to recover. A raft of systemic changes will be needed, to ensure that checks and balances are introduced or strengthened so that our country’s well-being never again depends too strongly on the goodwill of men and women in politics, but rather on strong, independent, and well-functioning institutions.
Perhaps in this way, SA will again demonstrate its extraordinary resilience.
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.