Next week on 18 August 2021 I have the honour of being invited as a keynote speaker at the UNISA Chief Albert Luthuli Research Chair Seminar Series. Let me clarify in advance that I have been invited to this august (excuse the pun) event in my capacity as the Head of Cultural Diplomacy Portfolio of the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA). The theme of the seminar is: “Invoking the spirit of Chief Albert Luthuli –  The importance of cultural diplomacy.”

According to Prof Puleng Segalo, the Chief Albert Luthuli Research Chair at the University of South Africa (UNISA): “This year marks 60 years since iNkosi Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (the first African to have this award bestowed on him). To this end, we are hosting a number of events to remember and celebrate this milestone and also to reflect on Luthuli’s legacy… [and this event on cultural diplomacy is one of them]. At its core, cultural diplomacy is about a country sending cultural messages about itself to another country to counter alienation between the people of different nations and to develop mutual understanding.

Prof Segalo continued to give us the context: “The legacy of political figures like iNkosi uAlbert Luthuli remind us of how much value there is in acknowledging and recognising the humanity of others. While insisting on the value of his own humanity and that of oppressed South Africans of colour, he also managed to build bridges that had boundless impact. Such legacies call upon us to also see how much acknowledging and recognising the humanity of others is generative, creating networks that spur progress for the here-and-now as well as for the long-haul. 

“Chief Luthuli may have intended to build global political networks by engaging in various international correspondences alluded to today, through the national and international trips he undertook for the cause of liberation, and his acceptance of accolades bestowed upon him by other countries. His social and political activism, however, also had other unintended, though complimentary, cultural and other intangible outcomes. When Albert Luthuli accepted his Nobel Prize, for instance, he made a speech in traditional Zulu attire. In doing so he represented his political ideology and ideals, but also the values and identity of a people.

“He, thus, sent cultural messages to the world by compelling it to not only view him as a political force, but to also accept him as a man of Zulu heritage. His visibility on this global political stage would also not simply be educational on the humanity of people of Zulu extraction to others abroad, but it would be a moment of cultural ambassadorship. By this political act, Chief Luthuli partook in cultural diplomacy in its instrumentation of culture to achieve cultural goals but also as a tool of creating mutual understanding between people of different nations.” 

In presenting such a compelling motivation, Prof Segalo has succinctly and eloquently borrowed from such scholarly luminaries as Richard Arndt (2005); Milton C. Cummings (2003); Allen Pigman, (2010); Frances Stonor Saunders (2014); and Cynthia P. Schneider (2005).

Before I preview my planned intervention, let me also thank the leadership and members of my organisation for having elected me into the National Steering Committee and giving me the responsibility to head this portfolio. There were many other capable comrades who could have been deployed to this position and yet they chose to take a gamble on me. I’m saying this to assert that I will never take the confidence they expressed for granted and, despite my perfect imperfections as a human being, I hope to do my damnest best, as part of the leadership collective, to help build NWASA into a formidable force during our three-year tenure.

Excuse my detour, I have chosen to locate cultural diplomacy within the public diplomacy theoretical paradigm. Let me first define it as the construction of a cultural identity in order to share a cultural heritage and a current popular culture, having as main goals peace and understanding. Edmund Gullion, a retired diplomat and Dean of Diplomacy at Tufts University, unveiled the term of public diplomacy at the launch of the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy in 1965 when he argued this “international phenomenon and a significant component of statecraft” provided a convenient framework for thinking about the impact of the “communications revolution” on the practice of foreign policy. The diplomat further posited that the disciplines of communications, international relations, history and politics established a framework for analysing public diplomacy and its tools included place branding (nation brand), international broadcasting and exchange programmes.

I therefore treat cultural diplomacy as a “soft power” arsenal to communicate and advance a country’s foreign policy interests. Joseph S. Nye Jr. developed the concept of soft power in 2004 and I love his 2008 definition of it as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment”.

My topic to the UNISA seminar is “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palm of my hand”: Re/engineering brand Africa through digital communications as effective delivery platform for public diplomacy.”

Although the first part of the topic is inspired by the biblical verse, Isaiah 49:16 (KJV), it speaks to the centrality of mobile technology as a tool of communications in modern days and thus making it an effective and cost-efficient delivery platform of public diplomacy. Geoffrey Cowan and Amelia Arsenault (2008) posit that we have to maximise public diplomacy opportunities by exploring all three layers of it by “moving from monologue to dialogue to collaboration”. The last layer denotes “initiatives that feature cross-national participation in a joint venture or project with a clearly defined goal” which is a “more effective public diplomacy technique than either monologue or dialogue in engaging with foreign publics.”

A few weeks ago I reported that the latest research indicates that in the past ten years the readership on mobile platforms has increased by 460% (from 45 minutes to 4 hours 12 minutes) and on desktop by 26%; while the losers were TV which decreased by 24%, radio by 19% and magazines by 50%. I also reported in another instalment of the Publisher’s Comment that global internet users have escalated by over 330 million in the past twelve months – meaning an average 900 000 per day. This brought us to a cumulative total reach of 4.7 billion from the beginning of April 2021 – and the clicks are increasing right now as you read this.

While the global population has increased nominally by 1% higher compared to last year at the same time in April to 7.85 billion, the number of internet consumers has increased by 7.6 percent since 2020 to a whopping 4.72 billion. This means over 60 percent of the global population had access to the internet – meaning 6 out of every 10 people.

Public diplomacy is a delivery platform of nation brand. While many researchers often used the concepts of “nation brand” and “nation branding” almost synonymously, Simon Anholt (2007) went further to endeavour, from a practitioner perspective, to disprove the existence, or rather the appropriateness, of such a concept as “nation brand” and sought to rephrase it as “competitive identity”. Peter van Ham (2008) posits this could be considered as “an effort to use strategies developed in the commercial sector to manage, if not necessarily wield, the soft power of geographical location.” The author echoes Nye’s sentiment by asserting soft power “rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others” and this ability “tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority”. The key words that Nye (2008) locates at the core of what soft power is are “entice and attract”.

The literature review on nation brand indicates that the research methodology employed is primarily perceptive studies that involve qualitative expert in-depth interviews, samples responding to questionnaires, and sometimes focus group interviews intended to expand on attributes and issues specific to the concept of nation brand. These studies are very costly.

I have previously in this news portal touched on the public spat that erupted between Naomi Klein (2010), a world-renowned anti-branding specialist, and other academics and practitioners such as Anholt and Wolf Ollins on the subject of branding places. Klein entered the fray by arguing the concept of a “nation brand” is an academic faux pas. She was earlier in 2001 quoted by The Economist warning of the emergence of “a fascist state where we all salute the logo and have little opportunity for criticism because our newspapers, television stations, Internet servers, streets and retail spaces are all controlled by multinational corporate interests”. Anholt (2002) retorted (and ending with a lamentation) that since the publication of The Hidden Persuaders by Packard Vance in 1957, “the population has always been ready to believe that there is something innately corrupt or even sinister about an industry that panders so effectively to people’s vanity, aspirations and simple desire to better themselves. Somehow, when these fiendish tricks are applied to something as sacred as the nation state, insults are heaped on the head of brands, marketers and policy makers alike with references to terms such as ‘spin’, ‘gloss’ and ‘lies’. In my own work, helping to improve the prospects of emerging markets through better branding of the country and its products, I am often accused of ‘rewriting history’, ‘social engineering’, ‘exploitation’, ‘condescension’, ‘neo-imperialism’ and ‘worse’.

I’m privileged to speak on a colloquium dedicated to eNkosi Luthuli because his seminal autobiography, “Let my People Go” (which was published in 1962), was one of the books that politically conscientised me as a high school student at the turn of the 1980s as after reading this book its title became my closing signature line during school debates as I defiantly called on the apartheid regime to “let my people go”. Yes later, as a public diplomacy architect, I may without any whiff of doubt declare that indeed the Chief was an ultimate public diplomat. Writing in his “Introduction” to “Let my people go”, Charles Hooper characterises the Chief as follows: 

Compassion is a part of Chief Luthuli’s habitual way of looking at people. Its obverse is a large sense of comedy, an unquenchable delight in people. Yet, for all the ease of his rich, joyous laughter, and his quick pity, there is a detachment about people, too: not from them, but about them, whether friend or foe. It is as though something in him holds aloof, subject neither to the sudden partisanship’s of emotions, nor to bitterness and resentment. About the policy, the act of cruelty, or the vicious law, he is ruthless and be formidably angry; but he refuses to assault the personalities of the men behind these things.

“It may be that it is this detachment, coupled with his gifts of imagination, which accounts for Chief Luthuli’s extraordinary power of entering the minds and emotions of other people. He is capable of understanding the Afrikaner dilemma with far greater clarity than most of their English-speaking fellow-whites; and the quaint, backward-looking Englishry of Natal is more explicable to Luthuli than it is to Dr Verwoerd. His imagination falters only when the mental state of his opponents enters the world of shadows: ‘I can understand and disagree with the man who says: ‘I want five farms.’ But I cannot grasp what is in his mind when he says: ‘I would rather murder or be shot rather than surrender one of them.

His assurance is so deeply grounded in intellectual humility that it is not possible to distinguish one from the other. Neither quality would be there but for the other. Assurance without arrogance, and the humility of a man who cannot be humiliated: this is a rare combination.

Assurance and humility stand the Chief and his country in good stead, as do other of his qualities: resilience, youthfulness of spirit, undoubtable courage, wisdom, tolerance, clarity, a zest for living, patience. If there is one quality, usually associated with leadership, which he lacks, it is ambition. There is behind him no struggle for power, and within him no determination to rule in person.

The complexity and depth of eNkosi Luthuli’s personality was uniquely nuanced as Cooper alludes to, but I also believe it also touches the identity the Chief forged not only for himself but also for his organisation. While he made a statement by being dressed in isiZulu regalia at an international award ceremony, his identity was premised on an isiZulu tradition, it has evolved to be dependent on a post-modernist African epistemology – he was an African who was a fully citizen of the global world, a product of a cross pollination between his South African and global cultures. I am convinced Stuart Hall (2013) had him in mind when he designed the concept of “the culture dialectic” in which he eloquently argued we should not only define ourselves as what we used to be but also in terms of “what we have become”. He mused: “Popular culture is neither, in a ‘pure’ sense, the popular traditions of resistance to these processes; nor is it the forms which are superimposed on and over them. … This is the dialectic of cultural struggle.”

Vipin Gupta and Jifu Wang (2004) explored this further in their seminal paper by referring to this dialectic of identity as reflective of a “transvergent” culture. eNkosi Luthuli’s sartorial identity was also forged through tailored suits with inspirational touches of Chinese fashion though adapted to the African fashion idiom. He even successfully sold this look to the ANC that adopted the suit, according to the caption to his full-page photo in his book, as its uniform. A few weeks ago my colleague, Andile Msindwana, the Editor of Jambo Africa Online, spoke about such fashion trend sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa through leaders of the anti-colonial struggles such as Kenneth ”KK” Kaunda.

Perhaps eNkosi Luthuli is the best epitome of what Friedrich Nietzsche (BGE 12; cf. AOM 17; D 501; WP 490) – a German philosopher, composer, culture critic, poet, writer and philologist – meant when he proclaimed every object is a “multiciplicity of subjectivities”.

The significance of the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed upon eNkosi Luthuli is that it was during the year the ANC, of which he was the President-General, was left with no option but to embark on an armed struggle by launching uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) during December 16 of that year.

What does cultural diplomacy, within the public diplomacy framework, mean to us as NWASA and how do we aim to crystallise and implement it?

We move from the premise that we embrace the African Union’s clarion call of declaring 2021 as “The year of arts, culture and heritage”. We believe this calls on our literary outputs to envision and unpack “The Africa we want” for our reading publics. We aspire to develop thought leadership on publishing in particular, and cultural industries in general, and thus serve as the national voice of South Africa’s writers (and related industries) on cultural developments across the world from a South African perspective.

We will develop a nuanced stakeholder matrix in which, as an affiliate of the Ghana-headquartered Pan African Writers Association (PAWA), we will develop and strengthen bilateral relations with our peers in all African countries. Within and beyond the publishing industry, we will develop and strengthen relations with all the relevant stakeholders in the entire publishing value chains and subsidiary industries – literature (research; writing; subbing; editing; graphic design; printing; warehousing; sales and marketing); and, subsidiary industries such as film and music production (scriptwriting, development of lyrics; editing, development of quality subtitles); and distribution. 

While tapping into the opportunities for our industry accruing from the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA) – which became operationalised from 1 January 2021 – we will forge representation of the sector in international trade fairs such as the Intra-African Trade Fair (which will be hosted in Durban in November this year); and sectoral fairs such as the London Book Fair and many others; identify and forget strategic relationships with formations hosting international writer residences; promote the translation of our literary works into indigenous African languages by forging strategic partnerships with the PanSALB; promote the translation into primary languages of trade in Africa such as kiSwahili, French and Portuguese to tap into the entire Africa-wide  market in the continent; and advance the contribution made by the sector into our country’s GDP as we’ll be embracing the positioning of the sector in the economic (not social) cluster in terms of our public service architecture and ensure benefits accrue to our members.

Our influence in multilateralism has to extend beyond the African Union. As such we aspire to identify opportunities arising from, and forging and strengthening our participation in, south-south cooperation (particularly in the think tanks for BRICS and the Non-Aligned Movement); while consolidating the north-south relations – building on our historical anti-apartheid ties; and making input into our country’s intervention at UNESCO.

So we do welcome the recent announcement from our own Amb Tebogo Seokolo in France that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has just concluded its 44th session and inscribed 33 heritage sites on the highly-coveted World Heritage List, two of which from African countries – namely, Gabon and Ivory Coast. As NWASA, we congratulate him on being elected as one of the five Vice Presidents of the Committee, representing Africa.  He has also reported South Africa has to date inscribed ten heritage sites on the World Heritage List – including the Cradle of Humankind and Robben Island.

Yes, let me repeat it today here – as I did previously – that our country and the continent have to invest more than sufficient resources in reputation management projects. As mentioned on this platform, African countries fared poorly in the 2021 Global Soft Power Index with only three in the top 50 – namely, Egypt ranking at 34, South Africa at 37 and Morocco at 48 – while 13 other African countries were lumped in the last batch between 74 and 100.  Even more disturbing are the findings from “The Most Innovative Countries Index 2021” that ranked 139 countries. Only nine African countries made it into the top 100 (from Morocco at 52 to Egypt at 96), it’s worrying that while South Africa is ranked 60 because of being scored relatively high in “market sophistication” at 15, it scored poorly in its “creative output” at 70 and “infrastructure” at 79. 

The work is cut out for us.

Enjoy your weekend.

Saul Molobi




Twitter: @saulmolobi
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