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South Africa is in a good place in terms of global image, but has challenges ahead

Posted on 28 March 2011 | 8:03pm

Despite the shock discovery that I am staying in a hotel owned by Colonel Gaddafi, I have spent a very nice day in one of my favourite countries, South Africa.
Whenever anyone says political protest cannot achieve anything, I strongly recommend a visit to this place. My hotel backs onto Nelson Mandela Square in Joburg, one of the many public places to celebrate one of the great lives of recent history.
He is a symbol of what politics and protest can achieve, and though his country faces many challenges, it is a fairer, better, healthier, happier country than it was under apartheid.
I have been taking part, and will be again tomorrow, in a conference on government communications, and have just spoken at a dinner attended both by government communicators and journalists from here and from overseas.
There is definitely tension between government and media, and the latter has not reacted well to the former’s decision to publish its own monthly newspaper. Government comms chief Jimmy Mannyi is all over one front page with the headline ‘dirty tricks boss’, though the assumption that a government paper represents dirty tricks does rather play into the government’s view that elements of the media will only paint a negative picture.
I found myself in the admittedly somewhat unusual position of urging them to be a bit more chilled. The disconnect that matters is not the one that exists between what the government does and what the media says. It is the one between what the media says and what people actually think about their lives.
During much of our time in government, anyone relying on much of the media for their understanding of Britain would have imagined that nothing worked, everyone in public life was venal, corrupt and incompetent and that it was wise not to get out of bed in the morning because if you ventured out the front door you would be stabbed by an asylum seeker. In the real world, meanwhile, a lot of largely happy people went about their business, lived nice lives, had nice holidays, sent nice kids to nice state schools and appreciated the fact the NHS was so marvellous.
Likewise people in South Africa know that for all the challenges, their country is a good one getting better so though much of the media coverage may be irritating, ultimately it doesn’t matter too much.
The government is trying to improve co-ordination systems and to be more strategic. The President has sent out the message to the government that in the past they have not done enough to communicate what they are doing.
There is a real energy to the comms team and they are also focused on the importance of comms to country branding. With the end of apartheid, the Mandela era, and then the World Cup behind them, they are in a good place in terms of global image. But as some of us were discussing tonight, one day Mandela will no longer be with us. Just as his life was one of the remarkable stories of the last century, so his death will be one of the most moving and emotional stories of this one.
In a way, it will be the time when South Africa has to take it’s place alongside others as a ‘normal’ country.

  • Ehtch

    South Africa can easily go places, and overcome their problems, in which they are doing. The main ones, obviously, is removing abject poverty, and the terrible problem with the past and present AIDS epidemic. Serious crime too is a concern – but reducing poverty will help decrease that.

    An excellent series of programmes I saw last year, before the World Cup, on BBC3, was that one with British footballing Wags visiting and helping out in the poor areas of South Africa, where they saw the work that is being done in eradicating AIDS and poverty. As is usually with these things, raising living standards takes decades, and doesn’t happen overnight. But it looks as if they are heading in the right direction.

  • Richard Brittain

    Good article. The comment about the British media is very true. I was reading some David Icke recently. Utterly crazy guy, but he has this theory that the media – news broadcasts, papers etc – are aiming to keep people in an ‘emotional prison’. He has a point, in terms of the consequences (rather than the intentions). If someone stayed at home most of the time, just following the media, they could quite easily become a paranoid maniac – why, just like David Icke himself!

    Pessimism and hysteria has become commonplace in our media. Hopefully the Big Society will sort it out!

  • Keane Sinead

    I know this is off the general point but I just have a question when you were in gadaffi’s tent do you feel the same as you seem to be a man with selective memory

  • Robert Jackson

    In the Autumn of 1992 my parents Albert and Gladys did a Rotary home exchange with a couple in Port Elizabeth. Apartheid was still in place. They swapped with a middle class white couple. The advice to mom and dad was that when they had a knock at the door don’t be frightened. Just give the caller something to eat and drink. Those begging at the door are just hungry and thirsty and are harmless.

    This struck a chord as the perceived wisdom at the time outside South Africa, and what was being said of the ruling whites, was “if the blacks don’t eat the whites don’t sleep”.

    Yes – the change has been truly astonishing.

    But David Cameron and his government had better understand that same basic message in terms of the haves and the have-nots – especially those who have now but who will have not when the Tory Coalition’s more idealogical cuts take effect.

    We lost dad last May and mom on 13th March. Both drew their politics seeing the inherent unfairness of Tory/Whig ideology applied in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Both admired the changes they saw in South Africa after their visit – a country moving from gross unfairness to fairness. Both would know just where this wretched Tory Coalition is taking Britain now and would weep.

  • Gilliebc

    Good blog post AC
    The following has nothing to do with Africa in particular, but may or may not effect the whole planet. Apparently magnetic north has shifted by 10 degrees
    and the sun rose 3 days early in Greenland, baffling scientists. I don’t know quite what to make of this and wondered if anyone has any thoughts/theories on it.
    C4’s documentary last week: Japan’s Tsunani: How it Happened, stated that the recent earthquake was “so powerful it knocked the earth off it’s axis”
    Personally, I don’t worry too much about things that are way out of my control, there’s no point. But, I do like to know what’s occuring.

  • Yann2k

    How can a country with an unemployment rate of roughly 25% be in a good place? This is the case despite its’ GDP growth being solid for almost two decades.

    Mr. Campbell im a big fan, really i am. I support your analyses and strategies as well as preferring New Labour to almost other choice there has been in British Politics in a long time. However, at the same time, we should highlight your abject failure to create a coherent policy to deal with the effects of markets on peoples lives.

    I’m by no means a commie but, at the same time i acknowledge that the market can have detrimental effects on peoples lives when politicians merely chase growth. South Africa, like Britain is a place where economic growth didn’t truly reward the public at large.

  • Richard

    If you were to vacate the Hotel foyer, and get into the local businesses and police stations, Al, you would see a different picture that those of us who have visited over thirty years see. Corruption and lack of education is rife: those thrust into business positions after the fall of apartheid holding the country back. A president who supports Mugabe. For God’s sake turn the telescope rounfd the right way.

  • Samuel Dada

    Well, honest protest can acheive lots. Please, don’t let us be foll be this on going event. The so call neo-conservative power has taken over the true revoltion to their advatage.