South African branding and African perceptions: How will the promotion of BRICS fare?

ArinaMuresanSouth Africa has a strategic role in promoting the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) partnership in Africa through its public diplomacy, the communication of a country’s foreign policy, and nation or place branding, the management of a nation’s reputation and image that accounts for the spirit and substance of a nation’s identity, intended to create a distinct, meaningful and authentic perception of the respective country.

South Africa is considered a continental leader and gateway into Africa from the Southern hemisphere. In terms of the BRICS partnership, Africa should benefit from this engagement through enhanced trade, development financing and investment; as well as through an increase in South Africa’s contribution to African peace and security efforts. A study conducted by Maxi Schoeman, Asnake Kefale and Chris Alden, on the perceptions of South Africa in Africa, however highlights that South Africa’s positive perception may not be shared by others in Africa. Is scrutiny a reflection of how South Africa perceives itself versus how it is perceived in Africa, and could effective public diplomacy and nation branding fix this?

The White Paper on South Africa’s Foreign Relations, commonly referred to as The Diplomacy of Ubuntu thus incorporates the complementary use of these concepts by: 1) enforcing the principles of transparency and inclusiveness, 2) aiming the communication towards domestic and international, elite and grass roots audiences, and 3) actively projecting South Africa’s image, values and cultures as a tool to spread information about South African foreign policy. Particular sources of confidence and strength in the South African brand are drawn from: the 1994 international return from pariah status; South Africa’s moralistic stance on human rights; the image, work and life of Nelson Mandela; the promotion of a socially cohesive society through the Rainbow Nation; hosting of mega-sporting events, such as the 1995 Rugby World Cup and 2010 Football World Cup; dedication to the United Nations (UN) platform; and South Africa’s involvement in the transition from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU), the African Renaissance, New Partnership for Africa’s Renewal (NEPAD), African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as Chairperson of the AU, to name a few popular instances. South Africa is well-known, internationally, for its democratic, reformist and forward-looking attitude on international governance.

However, this does not necessarily translate to a positive African perception and so official branding initiatives through Brand South Africa and the Global Ubuntu Diplomacy Brand, a supporting brand managed by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) may be found to be working overtime. What South Africa may do to solicit a positive relationship with the world, may at times have the opposite effect among Africans, as South Africa’s advertised role in the continent does not necessarily sit well with other African elites. Moreover, previous efforts of the African Renaissance, NEPAD and the APRM may be considered outdated as the political and economic landscape continues to shift on the continent. This, coupled with the criticism that the African Agenda is receiving less attention than previous years, and South Africa’s inconsistency with the AU’s international reform aspirations versus South Africa’s engagement at the UN and similar platforms, translates into a growing distrust in the South African image. Moreover, the sporadic waves of xenophobic violence and citing of racialized incidents are a severe influence over an authentic perception of South Africa as a socially cohesive Rainbow Nation. Issues in South African leadership structures are ever more apparent and thus reflected in the speculation over South Africa’s presence at the AU’s 29th Summit, which took place 27 – 28 June 2017.

South Africa has opted to represent Africa in the BRICS partnership, and with changing global dynamics, AU representatives are more interested in benefitting from an alternative arrangement. Although the success of BRICS in Africa is linked to individual engagements with BRICS countries, South Africa’s ability, and sensibility, to liaise relationships, as well as South Africa’s reputation in Africa still hold immense weight. South Africa thus needs to gain better control over how it is perceived in Africa but, although nation branding may not be sufficient in controlling this image. If a brand has gaps because of internal inconsistencies it may be perceived to be parochial, and those who experience the brand in this way are closed off from its original and intended message. South Africa’s brand is still relatively young and so it has the capacity to shape perceptions faster, as opposed to having to undo decades of negative perceptions. Perceptions will also be shaped by the actions and inputs of the BRICS members and BRICS institutions, such as the New Development Bank (NDB). Although the bank has specified that the initial investments will be made to the BRICS members, the NDB will allow more countries to join the bank in the future. The disbursement of development funds will have a positive impact on regional infrastructure projects and relate to social and economic progress in Africa, and thus may contribute to a positive image of BRICS in Africa. South Africa should be a stronger advocate for expanding NDB membership faster as well as getting the African Regional Centre (ARC) running, which may contribute to a positive perception of South Africa. In order to build better perceptions in Africa, public diplomacy and place branding may be an effective tool, but it needs to be supported by clear and decisive South African actions.

Ms. Arina Muresan is a Researcher on South Africa in Africa and International Diplomacy at the Institute for Global Dialogue. Her research interests include South-South cooperation and African diplomacy. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.