South Africa's quest to develop its 'brand'

The government hopes a planned image remake will help draw needed investment and tourists.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Chinese had 5,000 years to establish their image as a mysterious and industrious land.

The French at times cornered the market on fashion, food, and love over the centuries.

Tholi Ngwenya has a few months to pinpoint South Africa's je ne sais quoi. "Some countries have the luxury of time, of a long history," says Mr. Ngwenya. "We don't. We've got to slug it out on the global marketplace now."

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The Princeton-educated single father is South Africa's new salesman, heading up a multimillion-dollar effort by the government and private companies to remake South Africa's image and jump-start this new nation's faltering economy. "Before 1994, we had a well-known image," says Ngwenya. "It wasn't good, but it was well known: It was apartheid."

The question now is what will replace apartheid's angry white men as the icon of the new South Africa. Or in marketing parlance, what will "brand South Africa" stand for?

The government is hoping its newly appointed International Marketing Council, consisting of trade, industry, and cultural leaders and the ministers of key government departments, with Ngwenya at the helm, can do for South Africa what Tiger Woods did for golf - give it worldwide marketing appeal.

Need to get message across

The stakes are high. With unemployment above 30 percent, the government remains hard-pressed for cash to address issues such as the AIDS epidemic, education, and job training. "We believe we have a lot to offer the world," says Ngwenya. "It is just a question of getting that across."

When white minority rule ended in 1994, the new government expected unprecedented foreign investment. Officials figured companies, like Mobil, which stayed away from South Africa for moral reasons during the apartheid regime, would make up for lost time with briefcases full of cash and contracts. No other African country has South Africa's fine infrastructure, high literacy rate, and disposable income. South African exporters, boycotted by many European and American shoppers, hoped their products would finally take off. Trinket hawkers and restaurateurs anticipated an unprecedented number of tourists.

Instead, since 1994, South Africa has lost about 500,000 jobs, according to the government's National Population Unit. While tourism is on the increase, the country's infamous high-crime rate has stymied any potential explosion in that field.

US, European investors wary

American and European foreign investors have been cautious. Multinational corporations still don't have confidence in the government's ability to create a pro-business environment, says Jim Myers, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce here and a consultant for foreign investors. "The multinational community is still trying to figure this government out," Mr. Myers says. "They have no history, really, just six years in power." That many of South Africa's current leaders started their political careers in the Communist Party does not instill investor confidence, Myers adds.

The Asian economic downturn, which started just after South Africa shed its apartheid government, forced Malaysian and Japanese corporations, two of the top five investors in South Africa, to pull back resources. Chinese companies, once bullish about South Africa's prospects, were hit by labor disputes with this country's powerful unions two years ago and have since directed their foreign investment to other shores.

The rand, the nation's currency, has

lost more than 15 percent of its value against the dollar this year alone, but this has yet to In the next few months, the marketing council will hire a company to design a South African icon, slogan, and symbol - a challenge in a country as diverse as this one. "The South African brand is hugely complex," says Roger Sinclair, a professor and brand expert at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "Each group perceives the country differently."

Points of pride

A writer for the nation's Sunday Independent newspaper recently suggested, "South Africa the peacemaker," noting it "is the only nation in the world to give up its nuclear weaponsmaking capability willingly." Nelson Mandela is probably the country's best-known figure internationally. Since finishing his term as South Africa's first majority-elected president last year, Mr. Mandela has been brokering peace accords around the world.

But Mr. Sinclair and others advise against riding Mandela's coattails. "We're unique in terms of our natural beauty and diversity. We are the future of the continent," he says. "But there are some negatives we should get out of the way.... Great advertising can't mask reality."

The reality for domestic worker Regina Lebuya is that there is little to be proud of at present. When questioned, she laughs, and says, "This country is upside down. There is too much crime. I have nothing good to say." Another worker, Phein Mtarle, says, "It's a beautiful country, but I hate the crime."

"What we need is something like 'Crocodile Dundee,' " says Ngwenya. "I'm told that did a lot for Australia's image." The Sydney Olympics have been a further boost. South Africa lost bids to host the 2004 Games and the 2006 soccer World Cup. Plans for future offers are in the works.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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