Daydream.  I fell asleep on my laptop and in some parallel universe, the world was Elysium (the science fiction Matt Damon movie).  The difference in the daydream though is that the global wealth divide was the inverse of our actual reality.  In this daydream, much of the world was relatively wealthy and a small minority battled with poverty.  Governments had become like corporate recruiters and headhunters. And much like employee brands work to attract the best talent, nation brands competed to attract and retain the best resourced citizens to pledge patriotic allegiance.  If they could retain the confidence of their citizens, their national development challenges were easier tackled. Of course, I awoke back to a different reality.  The news in from the WEF (World Economic Forum) this last week of September 2017, is South Africa’s performance in the global competitiveness rankings.  This is big news to me because I’m a brand communications practitioner with diplomatic ambitions and exalted notions of nation branding (insert chuckle here).  That’s not funny, I know.  Neither is our country’s fall from grace.  South Africa dropped 14 positions in the rankings and even Brand SA has noted this unfortunate development with ‘concern’.

The WEF global competitiveness report ranks countries based on twelve pillars as performance indicators.  I think of them as nation brand metrics.  These are; institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and primary education, higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labour market efficiency, financial market development, technological readiness, market size, business sophistication, and innovation.  Predictably, South Africa’s performance declined on the global rankings and it’s not a pretty picture, to say the least.  The WEF report cites crime and corruption among the factors contributing to the country’s downward spiral.  To be sure, we saw this coming.  Our national dialogue is an ongoing (and quite frankly exasperating) discourse on state capture, judicial admonitions, public enterprise maladministration, corporate malfeasance, dirty political succession battles, burgeoning unemployment rates, a collapsing education system and everyday service delivery protests, to name but a few.  We are not altogether a happy and productive people.

I am also intrigued about this decline in our nation brand performance because it comes at an interesting time in our country’s political economy.  Equally interesting, and perhaps more importantly, is our collective psyche as a nation and how we’re responding to these ‘growing pains’.  As an ordinary citizen, watching this all unfold is both unnerving and exciting.  Unnerving because the illusion of a rainbow nation, deemed necessary at the inception of our democratic dispensation, is steadily being unmasked for the fallacy that it was.  Our leaders, many of whom were once esteemed human rights activists, appear to be hell bent on proving themselves to be quite inglorious.  But, this is also an exciting time because we’re beginning to shake free from our apathy and to assert our democratic vigilance.  At least I know I am.

Let’s quickly do a throwback to the year 2003.   Our political and business leaders have put together a team tasked with marketing South Africa abroad for investment purposes.  This is the International Marketing Council, now known as Brand SA, and they are industry experts and professionals mandated by government to advance our national interests across the globe.  And the public diplomacy is working because South Africa does appear to be indeed ‘alive with possibility’.  It’s the newest buzz.  And because that buzz never really left me, a few years later I get my hands on a book by Simon Anholt called ‘Competitive Identity:  The New Brand Management for Nations, Cities and Regions’.  The theory of Anholt’s competitive identity works with six channels, and these are; tourism promotion, export brands, policy decisions, business audiences, cultural exchange and active citizenry.  It is essentially about national reputation and brand-informed policy, and how governments can effectively and consistently manage these across the six channels to favourably position the country brand on a global platform.   However, at an elementary level, I always felt that the citizenry (ordinary people) were underestimated in the actual nation brand building.  Rather, it appeared to me that the disproportionate focal point of the nation brand promotion agency was the political and business audience.  But if the shock election results of the United States of America, the European Union’s Brexit saga and most recently Germany are anything to go by, it is that the voice of the people is underestimated to the detriment and erosion of a nation brand.

Over the past decade South Africa has shown increasing levels of deprivation.  According to the 2017 StatsSA Poverty report, we have effectively returned to the poverty levels of 2007.  In the book Comparative Government and Politics, the authors (Hague, R. and Harrop, M.) describe relative deprivation as a state where people are convinced that their value expectations are a far cry from their value capability.  Our national value expectations are outlined in the 2030 National Development Plan and we have effectively backtracked a decade on that vision.  If the state of deprivation persists, civil unrest and political instability will continue to gain momentum.  While our leaders squabble over a ‘poverty of politics’, our people are actually sinking even further into poverty.  2017 marks the year that South Africa officially has more than half of the population living in poverty or below the upper poverty line (R992 per person, per month).  The economy has come to a grinding halt and what little growth there is, is in fact jobless growth.  The people are feeling the effect more acutely and the leaders are increasingly tone deaf and blind with political ambition.  There is no clear resolution from the top down.  Consequently, there is a revolution brewing from the bottom up.  A crisis by any other name would still be critical.

So, back to my daydream of nations competing for resourced citizens.  There is a concept used in social dynamics called critical mass.  Critical mass denotes the sufficient level / number at which new users adopt an innovation so that the rate of adoption gains momentum and becomes self-sustaining, creating further growth.  Our nation brand promise is all about ‘inspiring new ways’.  If the critical mass theory would be used as guide, what level of government reform and domestic public diplomacy would convince ordinary citizens that ours is a government truly playing its part for the people?  If our nation brand leaders progressively fall short of retaining the love, earning the loyalty and growing the admiration of the South African people, what hope is there of achieving the 2030 NDP vision, let alone achieving higher levels of global competitiveness?  Perhaps when they show a concerted effort to first serve the interests of the people at home, they can hope to better attract the interests of foreign investors abroad.

Right now, the only real competition for our [human] resources as citizens is political parties campaigning for votes.  And isn’t that the point really?  That our shared humanity is the best resource of any citizen anywhere on the face of the earth.  I hope they don’t underestimate the potentially changed critical mass at the election polls.  I think as a majority we are moving towards critical mass.  It’s been said that a brand is a promise made, and a good brand is a promise kept.  Any nation brand (and by extension the government) worth its salt should be killing itself to fulfil that promise made to every citizen.  Else the citizens may yet choose to adopt something new.