Hello to all our readers and stakeholders 

As this month we’re celebrating Africa, I would like to attempt to define African identity within the brand Africa epistemological framework. Yes I’m mindful of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning against “the danger of a single story”, so I do recognise the complexities of this assignment. Furthermore, let me upfront state I will never pretend my arguments are definitive. This is my subjective conceptualisation backed by scholarly literature. I’m therefore fairly comfortable that my arguments are not emotional, I guess reasonably measured. 

Other upfront declarations include the fact that I concur with Nietsche that every object is indeed a multiplicity of subjectivities; and that Africa isn’t homogeneous – we are a plurality of subjectivities and yet there’s a common idiom that cuts across which defines the essence of brand Africa. This is what guides me in my effort to brand reposition Africa – and this stubbornly defies what my university lecturer’s defeatist pronouncement that it’s an impossible job. I refuse to agree with him. The West perpetuated negatives stereotypes about Africa and when we endeavour to re-engineer brand Africa, I’m told it’s a bigger that’s impossible for anyone to undertake.

Although there is a vast amount of research, the practicalities of brand positioning a country or a place “is often a little-understood panacea”. But what epistemological framework has dominated this field of nation brand and nation branding and its impact on Africa? Thus far most, if not all, studies on Africa have been largely based on how “divergent”, as VGJ Wang posits, the continent is under globalisation from the rest of the world. Simon Anholt, as I mentioned previously, has declared Africa is known for its “famine, disease and terrorism”!.

Furthermore, Wang has boldly stated that there have been three strategic perspectives that existed in deconstructing the concept of globalisation – namely, “convergence”, “divergence” and “crossvergence”. Convergence, according to RT Pascale and MA Maguire, gives a neo-liberal Anglo perspective that indicates that as countries liberalise trade policies, embrace new technology and establish governance structures, their overall behaviour converge as people tend to embrace values influenced largely by the economic activities in their surroundings. 

On the contrary, divergence perspective suggests that national culture, not economic ideology or technological growth, “is (and will continue to be) the dominant force in shaping the values, beliefs and attitudes of (leaders) within a country”. This is the view held by G. Hofstede and later A. Laurent concurring. Thirdly, as MF Guillén posits, the “hybrid crossvergence” is about the transnational strategic perspectives merging the best features of several global alternatives. A few more scholars have referred to this middle ground phenomenon as “crossvergence” which they defined as a “value set ‘in between’ the values” embraced by both the East and the West.

Concluding that the three formulations make it almost impossible for any institutions to “fully tap the opportunities inherent in globalisation as well as in localisation”, Vipin Gupta then advanced the fourth alternative perspective, “transvergence”. The author posited this was a “transformative reinterpretation and application of the indigenous cultural perspective that could be identified and embraced over time to combine strong ties between the local and global environments enhanced by technological developments resulting into institutional transformation.  As a result of globalisation, countries “do not need to forget all their history, rather they can reinterpret their history to make it relevant for a broader market landscape, [global] service scape and user mindscape.” This will result into “an integrated, original, and distinct perspective unique to each [country] as a function of its historical context and global encounters.” The nascent “Africa is rising” narrative, coined by Time magazine endeavours to propagate for a “hybrid crossvergence” relook at Africa.  

The formulation of the fourth perspective proposed leads into the essence of the interpretivist philosophy whose epistemological framework which I fully subscribe to is “the theory of knowledge” as eloquently articulated by Maurice Conforth with dialectical materialism providing my ontological context for analysis, in helping to define what, and dispelling myths about, brand Africa. For the record, applying another ontological framework still propagated by Maurice Conforth referred to as “historical materialism”, Africa’s societies, like all others in the world, have gone through all the historical epochs from primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism and currently some are pursuing a non-capitalistic path of economic development – dubbed mixed economies. 

This therefore means Africa has experienced all the first three industrial revolutions like all parts of the world. Applying the theories and methodologies adopted from the body of work by Conforth between 1953 and 1955, the development of Africa, like of all other societies, was never frozen in time.  The author articulates the three laws of dialectical materialism as “the law of transformation of quantitative into qualitative change”; “the law of the unity and struggle of opposites”; and “the law of the negation of the negation”.

J. Ridenour and R. Ruth argue that dialectical materialism “relocated the centre of action of the dialectic from mind to world  – reality, history – and insisted that economic, social, political and psychological phenomena be seen not just as they were, but as their negation, that is, what they could become through struggle.”

In unpacking the three laws of dialectical materialism, RH Wozniak posited that the first “law of transformation of quantitative into qualitative change” means an object can “undergo an essential change only if the inherent qualities of an object are changed quantitatively”. As an easy example, if you heat the water when they reach the boiling point they transform into steam. Then the author continues to explicate “the law of the unity and struggle of opposites” by arguing “all phenomena have as their essence innate, antagonistic tendencies” and “the struggle between these competing forces is seen as the motor of change and development.” Finally, “the law of the negation of the negation” could be seen as the “replacement of the old by the new (negation) and the re-replacement of the new by a newer still (negation of the negation) which serves “to reinstate aspects of the old but at a higher level than that at which they existed in the old”. 

So these laws could be applied in explaining the theory alluded to above by Wang – that is, “divergence”, “convergence” (negation); then resulting into “crossvergence” (negation of negation); then ushering in a new qualitative cycle of “transvergence” (negation). 

In concurring with Conforth, AR Luria suggests that dialectical materialism moves from two premises – namely, it is the science of the “material relationships between events as the primary determinant of consciousness”; and furthermore, it also “assumes that the material conditions of reality are in flux, always in motion” (my emphasis). Therefore, change is neither linear nor its process constant – therefore, the only constant in the world is only the spelling of the word “change”. And so agrees Stuart Hall with this conclusion when he coins the concept of “the culture dialectic” which argues for the recognition of the dynamism of culture by appreciating “what we have become” in disparaging the “back to our roots” brigades as espoused by the traditional African philosophy. This affirmation of what Africa has become has to be acknowledged by the global community too. Put simply, my world view as an African today is different from my forebears’. My culture is a synthesis arising from serious mutual engagements with others – we borrowed from other cultures as much as they have borrowed from us and out of this a new personality emerged.

Granted, most of the scholars quoted above aren’t of African origin. But I do imbibe universal principles and still customise them to Africa’s particularities. In this instance, I’m inspired by the logic advanced by Moses Kotane when he eloquently argued for this customisation of international theories in his 1934 message that came to be canonised as “the Cradock letter”. The Secretary-General of the Communist Party of South Africa argued the application of such theories had to be “rooted” in the African context. 

Brand development is at the core of economic development. Anholt argued that “the intelligent and judicious application of marketing and branding techniques upon countries” could be a powerful global tool for accumulation of wealth and its distribution and furthermore as a force for economic and socio-cultural development. Our countries have to invest sufficient resources in competitive identity management programmes particularly now as brand Africa continues to be under siege.

Although as a brand architect I can never agree with the anti-branding vitriol of Naomi Klein, I will always respect her viewpoint. That’s why I can never condone the emotional, sarcastic, infantile and disrespectful diatribe mounted against her by Anholt as he derogatorily questioned the “copywriting talents of Ms Klein” and called on “those who want to advance the debate (on the “pro logo” versus “no logo”) to outdo the loudmouths in both quantity and quality”. This, for me coming from a continent once bedevilled by internecine violence propagated by non-statutory armed forces or gangs of militia, could describe his diatribe as academic “warlordism”. The same sentiment still holds water on his arrogant comment on the supposed “government’s branding experts” as if civil servants were an uneducated cohort who had to blindly rely on the wisdom of gifted consultants like ourselves (him included) as they lack an atom of competence to develop a brand strategy that could make sense.

Mis/perceptions on Africa impact on consumer purchasing decisions. There is ample literature on the country-of-origin (COO) effect on consumer purchasing decision. Anholt correctly argues that a “Made in …” label “is equally significant as a “Made by…” label. A country’s nation brand rubs off “onto the products that come from those countries, and they count for a lot.”

Going beyond the run of the mill was a study by T. Kesić, SP Rajh and G. Vlašić that looked at the impact of globalisation on consumer behaviour. Their new theoretical stream (that went beyond ‘country of origin’ and brand image) developed the concept of “brand of origin”. The authors define brand of origin as “the place, region or country to which the brand is perceived to belong by its target consumers” although it could have been manufactured in another country. 

The authors argue that whereas ‘country of origin’ was used synonymously to “made in”, due to the intensification and deepening of globalisation and its vast networks, “made in” no longer possess the same meaning as it originally did. Nowadays, the ‘country of origin’ does not necessarily translate into the country of production. For example, many American brands such as Levi’s and Apple gadgets are now produced in the People’s Republic of China because the cost of production, particularly labour, is extremely low. This throws consumers into a dilemma as they traditionally perceive the value of a product as accruing from the trinity of country of origin, brand equity and country of production.

J. Fernández-Cavia, M. Kavaratzis and N. Morgan also alluded to the complexity and the “crossdisciplinary” or multidisciplinary nature of the concept of nation brand that leads to cross fertilisation of approaches. The disciplines with impact on the conceptualisation of nation brand includes tourism, economics, urban planning, sociology, marketing, geography and politics. This goes back to the argument I presented previously that trade and investment promotion is essentially a brand management competence. This is the essence of what the Brandhill Africa group is all about.

Yes they pretended not to have learned from the Roman author and naturalist philosopher, Gaius Plinius Secundus – otherwise famously known as Pliny the Elder – who mused “ex Africa Semphete a liquid novi” (there is always something new out of Africa”) long before he passed on on 25 August 79 AD. Yes they converged in Berlin in 1884/5 to slice Africa into chunks they appropriated to themselves. Yes, I fully concur with our poet laureate, Ingoapele Madingoane, when he wrote:

“Suckers of my country

They laid their sponges

Flat on its soil and absorbed its resources

To fill their coffers…”

The worst crime for me was when they branded Africa a “dark continent” in 1899 through Joseph Conrad’s seminal work, “Heart of Darkness.” Since then, they waged psychological warfare to dispossess us of our dignity.

Scholarship based on scientific evidence never failed us. Amadou-Mahtar M’bow; Cheik Anta Diop; A. Hampate Ba and other research luminaries exposed their lies. This is deep scholarship that asserts Africa’s noble position in the global community far from Prof PLO Lumumba’s lamentations and Moeletsi Mbeki’s child-like cry for a percentage of intellectual accolades given to his big-brother.

But their mainstream media played deaf. Africa’s narratives continue to be told through the prism of western epistemologies. You name them: CNN; BBC; Al Jazeera; Russia Today; CNBC; CGTN; Voice of America;  Africanews.; and many others.

Tom Fowdy, writing in Russia Today, said: “Chinese- and Russian-funded journalism is ‘disinformation,’ but when Washington spends (over $300 million) on ‘independent’ news outlets and buying journalists to get favourable coverage of its policies, it’s called ‘spreading information.’” This was in line with the Strategic Competition Act recently passed by the US Senate to ensure the country dominates the “global discourse” in accordance with its national interests.

The only authentically African voice is Channel Africa – which unfortunately South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), its parent company, treats it like miser.

While we spent the better part of tge 20th century waging successful national liberation struggles against colonialism, they pretended the degradation they inflicted on our continent, as articulated above by our muse, they made a brief comeback at the turn of the 21st century to spit on our faces: “African nations and Haiti are s**t hole countries…”

Their media carried this extensively. The University of Southern California researched the extent of the damage done to brand Africa. The statement sought to undermine a century worth of work undertaken by our forebears. This has to be brought to an abrupt halt.

So we shouldn’t be alarmed by the “Global Soft Power Index 2021” when it ranks only three countries in the top 50 out of 100 countries – namely, Egypt at 34; South Africa at 37; and Morocco at 48. As if the coinage BRICS has to do something about it, South Africa tails other BRICS member states with China at 8; Russia 13; Brazil 35 and India at 36.

Only 12 more African countries make it into the last batch of 50 countries. Algeria at 74; Nigeria at 82; Ethiopia at 83; Tunisia at 84; Cote D’ivoire at 86; Zambia at 87; Cameroon at 88; Ghana at 93; Uganda at 94; Kenya at 96; Tanzania at 97; Senegal at 98; and Angola at 100.

Although one may be tempted to celebrate the fact that 17 African countries are in the top 100, this isn’t enough if we consider ourselves the last frontier of development. This is an indictment against our countries for not investing sufficient resources into managing our reputation.

Noam Chomsky advised us recently in a tweet: “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.”

This should be a vow for all of us, irrespective of race, religion and gender as we declare our commitment to this continent. Our African giant, Chinua Achebe, said we have an arduous work of love: “We are not children of Africa, we are her parents”. And the African Union added that we must give birth to the “Africa we want!” This builds onto Ngugi wa Thiongo’s call for the “decolonisation of the mind”.

Let me close by borrowing from Madingoane by declaring my undying love for this continent as it is 

Africa my beginning

And Africa my ending…

See you all on Monday at our virtual seminar to mark the last day of the Africa Month. 

Saul Molobi


eMail: saul.molobi@brandhillafrica.com

Follow me on Twitter: @saulmolobi

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/skmolobi