OPINION: SA's brand takes a beating abroad

This week The New York Times ran an editorial, roundly condemning South Africa's government in the wake of the global controversy surrounding Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The newspaper said that the government's complicity in allowing al-Bashir to flee arrest deserves international condemnation. "The government has clearly defied the country's highest court and should be held accountable in some way. South Africa cannot help but compromise its leadership position in Africa if it insists on reneging on its international commitments and protecting ruthless leaders accused of war crimes," continued the editorial.

This highly critical condemnation in a newspaper of the esteem and influence of _The New York Times _marked yet another tectonic shift in how the world views South Africa.

Since 1994 and the end of the apartheid era, many would argue that the country's global identity was defined by Nelson Mandela, rainbows and hope. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification, but it's not terribly far from reality. If you climbed into a taxi in London or New York or Tokyo, it would not have been unlikely for the cab driver to respond, 'Oh South Africa - Mandela!'. Now you get into a taxi and the driver responds with 'Oh South Africa - Oscar Pistorius!'. Sadly, the phrase that would once have elicited pride now brings up feelings of despair and shame.

The truth is that over the past few months South Africa has been hitting the headlines for all of the wrong reasons, giving cabbies plenty of go-to associations beyond Madiba. The country is a regular feature on international news networks and often for subjects that evoke embarrassment and are the result of controversy. Local correspondents for big news channels are not short of stories to sink their teeth into.

Perhaps the most prominent of these has been Fifagate and allegations that the South African government paid a $10 million bribe to host the 2010 Football World Cup. The irony is that the tournament was a celebration of 'Brand SA' and the epitome of all that unity, rainbows and fluffy hope stuff. Now that has been undermined and perceptions have, to an extent, been replaced by assumptions of corruption and disregard for the rule of law. The blatant denials by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, in the face of mounting evidence, has done those perceptions no favours.

The storm of criticism around President Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla has also dented the credibility of the country overseas. It is difficult to justify government's explanation for paying for the security upgrades at Nkandla. Police Minister Nathi Nhleko's press conference explaining the decision, replete with explanatory videos of ' How to use a Fire Pool', didn't inspire confidence. Footage of the president standing up in Parliament and mimicking opposition members and mocking outrage like a farcical character in a pantomime is downright embarrassing. The conduct of many of our MPs in Parliament of late has been a joke - a case in point is Willie Madisha's bizarre 'Hong! Hong! Hong!' outburst? Imitating barnyard animals isn't exactly becoming of our elected officials.

Earlier this year, the shame of the country's xenophobic violence featured on the pages of overseas newspapers and on global news networks. Images of South Africans hunting down and beating human beings like dogs and looting foreign-owned shops circulated abroad, showing the country in a terrible light. Officials attempted to downplay the role of 'xenophobia' in the attacks, suggesting rather that it was a criminal element. That, coupled with Zuma's confusing comments around foreign land ownership in South Africa, has done little to make outsiders feel welcome here at the tip of the continent or attract much-needed investment.

If government was looking for more reasons to taint global perceptions of South Africa, then recently introduced visa regulations would do it. The impact of the new laws, requiring people travelling to the country to have biometric visas and to carry an unabridged birth certificate for children, has had a huge impact on the tourism industry. Tourism services association Satsa has gone as far as describing it as 'cataclysmic'. All this serves to do is repel foreigners from coming to visit here, rather than entice them.

Then there is the inconsistent electricity supply and the ongoing load shedding that is hitting the country. That, along with recurring incidents of violent crime, is easy fodder for critics overseas.

Some may argue these are only the faults and that it is unfair to highlight the negatives when analysing the strength of the country's brand. I absolutely agree that there is a litany of positives that South Africa has to bank on and there are reams of strong selling points to strengthen our global identity. But we would be fools to think that 'Brand SA's' glowing associations of rainbows, hope and possibility have not been tarnished by these recent developments.

_Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for _ Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener