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OPINION: The impact of xenophobia on brand South Africa

The Twitterati and WhatsApp enthusiasts have been hard at work disseminating memes about our country's embarrassing xenophobic savagery.

One of those I received came from a friend in North Carolina in the United States and featured Zimbabwean President Robert Gabriel Mugabe taking a dip at our country, saying "South Africans will kick down a statue of a dead white man, but won't attempt to slap a live one. Yet they can stone to death a black man simply because he is a foreigner."

That even the blatantly homophobic and an effective demagogue such as Uncle Bob can afford to look down on us illustrates how we are moving from children of Nelson Mandela, that man of peace who restored pride in a country ashamed of its past.

Once again we will soon become ashamed of our past as we are slowly becoming the laughing stock of the world and are ashamed and embarrassed by the present characterised by xenophobic barbarism.

We are peevish and intolerant against our own African brothers and sisters. We are gradually sinking into hyper-nationalist paranoia and self-righteousness.

While we remain a democracy envied the world over, we seem intent on striking out at the democratic values that have enabled us to survive against the odds and even thrive.

The stereotypes are nasty: They are stealing our jobs; they are drug dealers; they take our women; they force our local shops out of business with cut-rate prices.

In the 'us and them' syndrome, the generalisations that contribute to a rising tide of xenophobia that is directed at mainly at other Africans is sickening and starkly at odds with the post-apartheid image of our country which has become known as a 'rainbow nation', which since 1994 opened arms to people of every race, ethnicity and nationality.

We are facing a new form of racism, which is far different from the racism that reached a climax in the 1990s and led to the violence which helped end apartheid. We're not talking about the obvious racists with their intolerant religious creeds and constitutionalised racism. These new racists brand themselves as the marginalised fringe with no serious political power or societal influence.

Instead, we're talking about an overt epidemic called xenophobia. The type of racism that declares segregation to be a thing of the past but still believes in 'us and them' with murderous consequences.

Though xenophobia is common worldwide, ours seems especially virulent.

It is impossible to underestimate quite how much the rest of the African continent is slowly turning against us, slowly turning to dislike our overbearing sense of entitlement, arrogance and whingeing and imperialist tendencies.

While everyone has condemned the wanton killings and destruction of property and assets, most of them belonging to black immigrants, the question is what is xenophobia doing to brand South Africa and prospects for foreign direct investment (FDI)?

The truth is xenophobia is hurting South Africa the brand. We cannot divorce the business and image of the brand from the look of the brand. At the moment we look like a nation of savages with thugs running amok with machetes hacking fellow Africans. The pictures of the slaughter of Emmanuel Sithole are being shown repeatedly across the world as if South Africa is in flames. The pictures of the wanton destruction of property belonging to immigrants are also being shown as an illustration of how we hate other Africans.

As for FDI, the two - the look of the brand and the business - are intrinsically linked for a very good reason: a consumer, this time an investor or tourist, buys into a trusted product - South Africa - that can 'do the job'; and, moreover, he or she buys into a set of values that can deliver against the aspirations for a better life. At the moment we are not a 'South Africa that belongs to all' as aspired to by the Freedom Charter, but a nation whose soul is slowly fading.

Foreigners' stereotypical images are maddeningly difficult to dislodge. Branding and marketing a country is a complex business, especially when the exercise stretches beyond boosting tourism and into the realms of branding foreign policy, diplomacy and international relations and FDI.

Many people who wish to argue that the idea that something as complex as a national identity can be sold in the same way as soap powder are incorrect.

In this context, the word 'branding' is about modifying people's perceptions of us as a rainbow nation. Let us not forget that there are now 200 nations in the UN; countries all have to fight for a share of voice.

The point is we live in an information age. When our leaders and ministers make a speech directed at a domestic audience to stop the attacks on foreigners, the world sees it instantly. Pictures of a dying and dead Sithole are being seen across the world and are etched in the minds of potential investors and tourists.

In this environment it's no longer for the British Prime Minister, US President, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, German Chancellor or Namibian President to tell their citizens what their view of South Africa should be - they're forming a view themselves based on media consumption.

While it is difficult to put a rand value on how much xenophobia is damaging South Africa the brand, there is no doubt that there is a real link between the brand valuation and business valuation of our country as a country to do business and visit. The intangible value of our country as a brand is our goodwill and at the moment we are seen as lacking goodwill.

We live in a branded world. Nowadays everything is branded, from soap to sport, from the connectivity of a country to politicians. To brand a country is a natural progression - a bigger, more complex challenge. But branding a country is not only about pride, but profit too. There are more countries than ever in competition. Families decide on where to take a holiday based on the reputation of a country. They are not going to visit or invest in a country whose citizens display xenophobic tendencies. For example, my family and I will never take a holiday in xenophobic Russia.

After all, most often the objectives for branding a country are economic, increasing tourism and increased investment both internal and inward, which in turn bring with them increases in employment, opportunities for regeneration and growth in gross domestic product.

The truth is migration and immigration are widespread in the modern-day world and involves all nations, either as countries of departure, of transit, or of arrival. It affects millions of human beings.

Among those particularly affected are the most vulnerable of foreigners: undocumented immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, those displaced by continuing violent conflicts in many parts of the world, and the victims - mostly women and children - of the terrible crime of despotic leadership on our continent.

South Africa as a brand is increasingly important in the world where nations compete for a share of the global market. After all, a brand is a promise, or, more accurately, it is a promise that must be kept if it is to be successful.

Positively branding our country is about amplification, not fabrication and displaying signs of savagery. It is about identifying and magnifying what is relevant, credible, and distinctive and motivating to the target audience such as investors and tourists

Improving our country's brand and reputation has to be all-encompassing.

To a degree our actions as citizens are dictating foreign policy and FDI, tourism and other economic development imperatives.

Our country's global brand leadership will not thrive on compromise, but requires the head and the heart to work in harmony. As citizens we are also responsible in communicating that we're a force for good and capable of putting aside self-interest and xenophobic tendencies.

Please let us spare brand South Africa.

Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a content development and reputation management hub. Follow him on Twitter: @richmkhondo

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