Hands up. What do you think of when I say “Germany”? Probably images of Mercedes, BMW and the autobahn come to mind. Perhaps visions of German preciseness and a fastidious attention to detail. “Switzerland”? Heidi, chocolate, images of the Alps bathed in golden sunlight and the most expensive watches in the world. Now let’s try “Africa”, and what images pops into our minds?
The sad reality is that for most of the world the word Africa comes to the mind dragging behind it pictures of children with bloated stomachs, jungles filled with guerrillas battling for blood diamonds, dictators driving luxury German vehicles (read the first line again and ask yourself why they are always German!) and roads lined with poor Africans begging bowls in hand. Perhaps our images are not so graphic but on some level, at some reach of our mind Africa still carries that tainted image of the dark continent, that mysterious place where lions run rampant on the streets (a European friend of mine once asked if we had lions in our cities) and where hope is abandoned by all who enter it.
Jermain Ndlovu and I recently attended Brand Africa’s inaugural Forum in Johannesburg last month and these are the images that Dr Dambisa Moyo challenged us with. She calls them the Four Horsemen of Africa’s Apocalypse: Poverty, Famine, War and Corruption. And the surprising thing is that these are sometimes images of a continent held by her inhabitants. Brand Africa is an independent pan- African driven initiative for Africa’s thought leaders. It aims to create opportunities and build sovereign nation brands and a collective African brand.
I freely confess our continent is the poorest on the planet, it lags behind on almost every index and massive development is still needed in almost all of her countries. But that is not the same as being labelled a continent where nothing good comes out. That is an altogether different world to being ashamed being labelled African, where the name of this great continent of ours is synonymous with inferiority.
Where are the success stories? Where are the champions of economic development (South Africa), of transparency (Botswana), of youth development (Mozambique), of literature (Nigeria)? Why are these stories not being told, and when they are why are they being underplayed and that image of the starving child with a big stomach lighting up banners in star studded charity concerts. China and India collectively have more poor people than the whole continent and yet Africa is the image of poverty in the world.
What came out of Brand Africa was that Africa needs to take responsibility for her own image. According to Simon Anholt, the branding guru of the world and also that author of Brand America, the most important thing, the most valuable treasure a country can have is its public image. And its image depends on a countries ability to “develop the systems, strategies and structures to enable it to produce a constant stream of dramatic evidence that it deserves the image it has”. So as an African ask yourself, what dramatic images has your country been producing lately? As an outsider ask yourself, what dramatic evidence has changed your perception of Africa?
Dambisa Moyo took to the stage to announce that politicians cannot be relied on to drag Africa out of the mess that they have a part in putting her in. It is us, the public, the Africans, the people who give a damn who should and who can do something to positively change the perception of Africa gives out to the world. And sometimes it starts with changing our perception of being an African. I admit, that gave me pause for thought. What does being an African mean for me? Imagine the shock when she quoted George W. Bush of all people and I found myself hit in the gut by the profoundness of his words; “We should all beware of the soft bigotry of low expectations”. The South African 2010 World Cup is a classic example of the truth of that.
So at the end of the day, what does it mean to be an African? Do we accept the image of poverty that an entire continent is painted with? Do we accept the implication that we are one big country that speaks one strange language? Do we accept being painted with the same brush that our leaders have been painted with? Do we accept that in some way the ‘African’ accent implies stupidity in the same way that the French one implies sophistication? Do we accept the stories broadcast everyday on the international media with no context whatsoever? Simply put, I do not.
I know Africa has a plethora of issues, problems and challenges, some of them catastrophic. But I want with all my heart to be able to say as Thabo Mbeki declared so many years ago; “It feels good to be an African”.
Bongani Ncube, Global Changemaker
Image Credit: Duncan Walker