x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

World Cup host South Africa's media challenge

Feature One of South Africa's greatest challenges during last month's FIFA Confederations Cup came not on the field but on the page.

South African rugby captain Francios Pienaar, right, receives the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela, left, who wears a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in Johannesburg, in this June 1995 photo.
South African rugby captain Francios Pienaar, right, receives the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela, left, who wears a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in Johannesburg, in this June 1995 photo.

One of South Africa's greatest challenges during last month's FIFA Confederations Cup came not on the field but on the page. When the news broke on June 19 that the Egyptian football team had returned from their victory over Italy to find their Johannesburg hotel rooms allegedly burgled, the story quickly spread around the world. While no one was hurt and the missing US$2,400 (Dh8,815) was a pittance compared with a footballer's salary, the story was a public relations disaster, validating the fears of sceptics who doubted that South Africa, with its well-publicised crime problem, would be able to provide a safe environment for next year's World Cup, the first to be held on the continent.

Local newspapers ran front-page follow-ups quoting unnamed sources blaming the thefts on women the team had invited back to their rooms, but the police never publicly confirmed this story. The Egyptian team, insulted by the insinuation, blamed the media's "lies" for their exit from the competition. The tense incident served to show how crucial the media will be in deciding whether South Africa will get the one thing it desires above all others from hosting the World Cup: a lasting boost to its national brand.

The person in charge of managing this is Paul Bannister, a fast-talking, wide-smiling former advertising man now serving as the acting chief executive of the International Marketing Council (IMC) of South Africa, otherwise known as Brand South Africa. "The fact is, our media amplified it in the wrong way and we've got to work with them," Mr Bannister says. "We're going to talk to them. In the past, we've been a little bit resistant to talk to the media and been a little reactive, but you've got to get a conduit open."

Managing local media is only a small part of the IMC task. It was formed as a private-public partnership in 2002 after much negative press on South Africa's response to its AIDS crisis and other problems. The bad press stung all the more because it followed several years of often euphoric reporting about South Africa after apartheid ended in 1994. "1994 effectively relaunched South Africa as a nation brand to the world; not deliberately, not as a marketing stunt, but just as an extraordinary groundswell to achieve what the world thought was impossible," Mr Bannister says. "And for several years, we stayed on the front pages of the newspapers for all the right reasons."

The fledgling democracy went on to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995, which resulted in the historic photograph of Nelson Mandela in a Springboks jersey presenting the trophy. The image of a black leader embracing the traditionally white sport of rugby was seen as a symbol of national reconciliation. "But sadly, the rainbow effect of democracy didn't last," Mr Bannister recalls. "Government and business realised they needed to make an intervention and so the IMC came into being."

Since then, the IMC has painted London taxis in South African colours to encourage tourism, and run print and television ads to encourage investment. But lately, its focus has been on preparing the country and the world for South Africa's historic hosting of the World Cup. "If 1994 was the first point of proof of delivery of possibility, 2010 is the next big proof point," Mr Bannister says. "When else do you get a chance to show your best foot to the world and not go beg, buy or barter to get media coverage? We're going to get media coverage but the critical thing for us is, how do you use that event?

"What is the true legacy of 2010? We would argue that this legacy doesn't lie in bricks and mortar of the stadiums. We would argue that it lies in the springboard that it represents for this nation's brand to grow." The contents of that brand are still evolving. "We think the territory is somewhere in the area of growth and balance, growth and harmony, growth and sustainable development," Mr Bannister says.

"We've haven't quite worked it out yet but we think the global economic turmoil, which has to some degree levelled the playing field, provides an opportunity to grab a new position." The World Cup will certainly add to the story of growth. Arthur Kamp, an economist at Sanlam Investment Management, one of South Africa's largest financial services groups, estimates that the World Cup will boost the country's GDP by between 0.3 and 0.5 per cent.

But more importantly, Mr Kamp says, the tournament has served as a catalyst for much of the 800 billion rand (Dh378.19bn) in infrastructure spending over the next three years. Building on the culture of innovation the country developed during the isolated years of apartheid, South Africa has also given rise to a number of innovative start-ups in recent years, from the modular energy technology developed by the Centre of Material and Process Synthesis (COMPS) to the donation-tracking software of the Broccoli Project.

But South Africa also faces serious challenges to achieving the brand, and thereby the investment, that it wants. The nation has the second-highest murder rate per capita in the world after Colombia, with 50 murders a day, according to the latest statistics, for 2007-2008, from the South African Police Service. A study by the country's Medical Research Council in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces found one in four men had committed rape. It was the latest grim tale to make international headlines last month.

Soraya Solomon, the chief executive of the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO), says she questions the research behind the rape report but not the fact that crime is a serious issue. "I'm not going to be a politician and tell you we don't have a crime problem," Ms Solomon says. "We do face challenges when it comes to crime in South Africa but I believe as a country we are making excellent progress. I think the media caused quite a lot of hype around the issue of crime."

The latest crime statistics show that the number of rapes declined by 8.8 per cent in 2007-2008 from 2007-2006, and murder by 4.7 per cent. Police officials say while these declines are encouraging, crime in the country remains unacceptably high. One need only drive around Johannesburg, where every building is surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire and protected by private security, to see the country has a long way to go.

The other image that may shock visiting football fans is the long rows of densely packed shanties stretching along the road from Cape Town's airport. South Africa also has one of the world's largest gaps between rich and poor, according to the World Bank, but it also has an unusual constitution that binds the government to show continual progress towards providing basics such as housing and health care to all.

Ian Neilson, the executive deputy mayor of Cape Town, says about 100,000 of the city's 900,000 households are classified as "informal", although that number may be as high as 400,000 if the backyard shacks that are difficult to count are included. "The numbers are really daunting for us," Mr Neilson says. "We need to build 30,000 to 40,000 houses a year, and we are building 9,000." The government also has to work on bringing services into the settlements. "We also have to embrace informality," Mr Neilson says. "We have to accept that over the next generation, people are going to live in informal settlements."

One of the key questions at the heart of the World Cup planning is how to ensure settlement residents see financial benefits from the 450,000 visitors the country is expecting. While the billions of rand the country is investing in infrastructure before the games - from airport expansions to the building of an Integrated Rapid Transit system in Cape Town, the first significant public transport investment the city has made since the 1980s - will benefit the population long after the games are over, even business leaders are doubtful about the World Cup's direct poverty-destroying power.

Instead, Nick Binedell, the director of the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg and a board member of the IMC, believes the benefits will more likely happen through the new brand. "I'm a little sceptical about how the average South African will benefit, however indirectly," Mr Binedell says. "But the brand reputation hopefully will bring investment." khagey@thenational.ae