It was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin, who in 1904 mused: “…vperyod, dva shaga nazad” – which means “one step forward, two steps back”. This adage is sadly suitable in describing the performance of African countries in the global rankings such as the recently released Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index 2022.

Perhaps let me first succinctly explain what the concept of soft power is. It was developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in his 1990 book, “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power”, after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika that inadvertently led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990 and this represented the end of the Cold War; the overthrow and subsequent execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and leader of the country; the Polish Communist Party being defeated by dissident Lech Walesa; the unification of Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall; and generally the ushering in of an era in which the US remained the sole superpower.

Prof Nye then explained that soft power is a country’s ability to co-opt rather than coerce by using hard power. In other words, soft power “involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”. He posited that “the best propaganda is not propaganda”, further explaining that during the Information Age, “credibility is the scarcest resource”. He further elucidated that it is “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” In politics, and particularly in international relations, the arsenals of soft power include culture, political values, and progressive foreign policies. He further refined the concept in his 2004 book, “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics”.

Soft power is also essentially about the perceptions harboured by the foreign publics about a particular country. This is the crux of branding as marketing is a perceptual study.

Although only three of our African countries improved their scores and remained in the top 50 – namely, Egypt at 31 (from last year’s 34); South Africa, 34 (from 37); and Morocco, 46 (from 48); call me too difficult or demanding as I’m not happy with this lackadaisical performance as it means it will take years for our countries to reach the top 10 considering the snail pace at which we make an impression on the respondents in this survey. Imagine what could be the negative impact of Nhlanhla Lux Mohlauli’s ”Operation Dudula” on our score? Our communications as a country is embarrassingly poor – while Ministers argue the crisis is about driving out criminal elements (domestic and foreign), you have in the same live news item ordinary people being interviewed and vowing to eject “foreigners” out of their communities.

Needless to say this goes against the spirit of Thabo Mbeki’s African renaissance which was launched with the adoption of South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution – which is hailed as one of the most, if not the most, progressive in the whole world. By the way, ubuntu/botho is one of the cardinal principles of our foreign policy and the quality of service we give should be based on the principles of “Batho Pele” (meaning, people first). We have to respect the rule of law and reject vigilantism with the contempt it deserves. These are the values we came up with as a people and they weren’t imposed on us. So don’t you dare – yes, actually, I double dare you – tell me about how other immigrants are ill-treated in other African countries, our morality can’t be based on other countries’ wrong doing. Our constitution demands that we become a yardstick of moral excellence.

Pardon me for an emotional rollercoaster. So, back to the survey, South Africa trails behind its BRICS member states – China is 4 (from last year’s 8); Russia, 9 (13); Brazil, 28 (35); and India, 29 (36). Yes, one can’t wait to see the impact of the current disinformation campaign against, and news blackout imposed on, Russia on its next year’s performance as each country is assessed by others (do note the voting in support of the latest UN resolution disbarring it from the UN Human Rights Council).

Personally, I was expecting Egypt to score much higher since it was the biggest beneficiary of FDI into Africa last year and that it even overtook South Africa as the second biggest economy on the continent. My conclusion is that it didn’t utilise that opportunity to mount a global branding company not only to celebrate its achievements but also to amplify its messaging that it was the most viable investment destination on the continent as the UNCTAD statistics have declared.

Why am I too harsh to African countries? Throughout my schooling in Hammanskraal’s rural village of New Eersterus (yes, a bygone era before the school reports were emailed to parents or matric results published in newspapers), our tradition was that we would all stand at assembly, and the teachers will announce the top 10 students in each class and grade. It was every learner’s dream for their name to be read out. Furthermore, there was our Physical Science teacher who made us write short tests every Wednesday so that he could give us feedback on Thursday. He reminded us it was ”Donderdag” – as the day is called in Afrikaans, thus giving him the right to ”donder” us. He punished everyone who got between 50 and 99%. So to avoid the lashes (yes, corporal punishment was legal then), you either had to score 100% or less than 50% – he argued he wasn’t going to waste his energy on those who failed as they weren’t serious about schooling. So Brand Finance is quite generous as they list the top 120 countries.

The next set is the 50-100 bracket. Nigeria has improved drastically from 82 to 69; Algeria has underperformed by going down one notch from 74 to 75; Tunisia 76 from last year’s 84; Ghana, which houses the news worthy Secretariat of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), only moved up a few notches to 86 from last year’s 93; big ups to Seychelles and Madagascar that entered the top 100 at 90 and 94 respectively; Kenya, 95 (96); Côte d’Ivoire – which fails to piggyback on its opportunity of hosting the headquarters of the darling of the media, the African Development Bank – embarrassingly slipped down to 96 from last year’s 86. We may not be surprised by Seychelles’ impressive performance as last year it clinched the UNCTAD World Investment Summit’s Best Ocean Economy Award and perhaps credit should also go to President Wavel Ramkalawan’s media team which has been aggressively promoting his government over the past year.

Sadly, these are the only ten African countries, out of 55, that have made it into the top 100 list. And what is even more embarrassingly worrying is that there are a number of African countries that have been ejected out of the top 100 list. By the way, not necessarily defending the legitimacy of the survey, let me clarify that African countries also participate in evaluating each other – so it isn’t just a matter of foreign continents having misperceptions about Africa, it’s highly possible we underscore each other. This year we’ve seen Tanzania going up a few notches from 97 to 101; Ethiopia from 83 to 103; Zambia took a huge knock from 87 to 107; Botswana is new in the top 120 at 107; Senegal from 98 to 110; Cameroon, was the biggest loser, from 88 to 112; Angola from 100 to 114; Uganda from 94 to 115; Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 105 to 116; Mozambique 104 to 117; and Sudan at 119 (maybe if there was a coup, the country could have done much better to be in the top 100).

In addition to congratulating Seychelles and Madagascar that entered the top 120 list for the first time as the biggest winners at 90 and 94 respectively; we also welcome Botswana and Sudan in entering this league of top nations at 107 and 119 respectively.

African countries have to realise that global rankings such as these are akin to the world of work: there’s a price you pay to get a position, and there’s a price you pay to stay in that position and to move up the corporate ladder.

While we’ve been celebrating the strides we were making in deepening the continental integration project through the AfCFTA, we’ve seen a number of countries taking us back to a season of “the unconstitutional transfer of power” (to use the African Union’s phraseology) through coup d’état. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s report, in the past three years, eleven coup attempts took place in Africa, and seven of them were successful in toppling governments. 2021 was the darkest year in Africa’s recent period as we saw four successful coups in Africa – in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan. This was as many as last seen in 1991. Then in February 2022 we suffered a successful coup in Burkina Faso and a failed coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau. This year in February we received the news of the DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi cutting short his trip to the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Ethiopia because there was an attempted coup in his country. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation reports that the recent coups highlight “the risk of trading off development for security, the rule of law and human rights.”

Why do I think these rankings matter? They impact on investor and tourist perceptions which translate into influencing their decision making regarding which country they should invest in or visit as tourists? Considering the country-of-origin (COO) effect, they impact on the consumers’ perceptions of the service and products from these countries. So if the perceptions are negative, they will not invest in the countries, visit the countries as tourists, and even buy the beneficiated, branded services and products from these countries.

So I cannot belabour the point that African countries have to invest sufficient resources into marketing their countries. Although I have seen quality products performing poorly in the market because of poor marketing, and poor quality products doing exceptionally well because of excellent promotional work, I’m not suggesting that mere branding will improve the rankings of our countries without being accompanied by progressive policies, laws, regulations and sound practice in our countries. We have to change the narrative on Africa. The opportunity is now as we rally ourselves around the integration project through the AfCFTA.

While we wish our Christian readers a happy Easter weekend, we also send our prayers to South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province which has suffered massive infrastructure damage and loss of over 300 lives due to the torrential rains.

Stay blessed.

Saul Molobi (FCIM)
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