JOHANNESBURG // Assailed by doubts over their government, their contribution to the world, and even their often-vaunted lifestyle, South Africans rank their own country lower than the people of any other major economy except Japan, according to a survey made public last week.
The CountryRep report, a global research project compiled by the Reputation Institute, covers attitudes among consumers in the G8 countries and 34 other states, and measures the countries' self-image and reputation abroad. Incorporating 11 metrics that range from whether a place is beautiful and enjoyable to its business environment and the efficiency of its authorities, the countries ranked highest overall by outsiders are Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Sweden and Norway.
The bottom five, in descending order, are South Africa, South Korea, Ukraine, China and Russia. But how citizens feel about their own countries is perhaps the report's most revealing feature. Australians are the most approving of their country, followed by Canadians, Finns, Austrians and Norwegians. The most self-critical are South Koreans, Portuguese, Brazilians, South Africans and finally, the Japanese, the only population to rate their own country lower than foreigners do.
The people who give their own countries the biggest positive margin over outsiders' views were the Chinese, Russians and Indians. China and Russia "really are quite nationalistic and inward-looking", explained Dominik Heil, the managing director of the Reputation Institute's South Africa branch, while Japanese are "humble people". "It's quite a healthy thing for a nation not to overrate itself," he added.
Most importantly, reputations abroad are vital to attracting foreign investment and tourism, he said. "They matter absolutely and they matter both in the positive and the negative." Mr Heil is German by birth but has lived in South Africa for 16 years and now considers himself to have a "dual identity". "There are certain things we really need to work on if we want to attract investment," he said, adding that concrete action was required, and not merely advertising or "spin-doctoring".
"If we can't make them work we can't really expect to have a better reputation. I think we are underrated as a business environment, but the big concern is government and whether government is effective." Maya Fisher-French, a financial columnist writing for the South African website Moneyweb, said the survey's findings were "not pretty". "We as a country need to be working on our brand to improve this image," she said, pointing out that both South Africans and foreigners were most concerned about governance.
Among the latest scandals to be featured in the media is a police minister who ran up hotel bills on taxpayers' money. The individual in charge of promoting South Africa's image abroad is Paul Bannister, the acting chief executive of the country's International Marketing Council - who agreed on the need for tangible action. "I have never seen a bad product sell more than once despite the best advertising in the world. The only solution is to fix the intrinsics, not the image," he said, citing the state education system as an example.
It is, of course, impossible to quantify the effects of reputation on inward investment, but he cited the hypothetical example of a decision-maker in New York choosing whether to locate a clothing factory in South Africa or the Philippines, and being swayed by the resignation last week of a respected aide to the president. In terms of perceptions, though, South Africa suffers from its association with the rest of Africa, which was once described by The Economist as "the hopeless continent", Mr Bannister pointed out.
"A combination of ignorance and Afro-pessimism hangs over countries that people don't know a lot about." Referring to pop stars' charitable efforts to help, he went on: "Dear old Mr Geldof and dear old Mr Bono have fantastic intentions but continually reflect the stereotype that we are hopeless and starving and begging. "Television reports will show Zimbabwe, Somalia and all the other disaster zones and we end up perpetuating the stereotype. If there were more African leaders of the substance or perceived substance of Obama rather than the perceived lack of substance of people like Mugabe, the halo effect would lift the whole continent. That's one of the challenges we face."
Other global national reputation surveys ranked South Africa higher, he said, but added that the country is self-critical for historical and geographic reasons. "As a nation we are not very good at standing up for our own country. Being under the magnifying glass of the world prior to 1994, [when the apartheid system was replaced by democracy] and post-'94, we say to ourselves we should be up there with the best and we have got to fix all this."
The wealthiest and most-educated South Africans were the most likely to have doubts about the country, he explained, as they were more likely to compare it to European and other developed nations. With issues such as governance, crime and corruption, "the more intellectual end of our society will be concerned", he said. "The higher up the socioeconomic group is, the less confidence they have in their own country.
"I can bring you a self-effacing bunch of South Africans who will be self-critical and will compare us to world-class, first-world countries like Australia and Switzerland. I can bring you middle-class black South Africans who say we do an awful lot better than [the rest of] Africa, so we are OK." The result can be seen in the fact that tens of thousands of white South Africans have emigrated in recent years, the people most likely to be able to afford to do so and find work abroad. The exact number is unknown because the government does not maintain statistics on the subject, but the phenomenon has left the country suffering from a "skills shortage".
Even so, self-doubt could have positive effects, he added. "Do we have a problem because we think worse of ourselves? Is it equally not dangerous to be in Australia's position where the danger is you think you walk on water? I would rather be in the Avis position of 'we try harder'." firstname.lastname@example.org