Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Selling South Africa

I’m proudly South African. I may be living in another country at the moment, but SA still represents home to me. And I’m proud of what being South African means to me: a country on a growth curve, coming from a troubled history and moving towards a much brighter future.

Having spent my entire career working for the marketing and communications departments of two different multinational organizations, I can’t help but think in marketing terms sometimes. There are lots of opportunities in the United Arab Emirates, and not enough South Africans are taking them up.

There are exceptions however. In the military world, you mention South Africa, and they automatically say “Ah, Denel!” And it is said in a good way. They like our products, they like our service, and they like our technical expertise.

There is also Mugg & Bean, but it is often a surprise to people when I tell them it is actually a South African company. Most people think it is an American franchise.

Woolworths too. Many (except the British, who know better) think it’s the UK chainstore of the same name. The UK version is completely unlike our South African one. And like in SA, the Woolworths here has come to mean quality. It is just a pity that people are not associating that quality with South Africa.

One of the things that surprised me most was my visit to the Gold Souk (market). In a shopping mall filled with nothing but jewelry stores, I expected to see some evidence of South Africa, it being one of the major gold producers of this world. But no, all the jewelry stores have big banners claiming to sell Italian gold. I was surprised and did some research.

In India, wedding dowries are commonly made up of gold jewelry. And it has to be new, no hand-me-downs from mum either. So the wealthy families head out to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and shop till they drop at the Gold Souks. And for some reason Italian gold is the most sought after.

I still don’t know why. Because as far as I am aware, South African gold is of exceptional quality and purity, and should be what people are looking for. Why aren’t they? It’s a question that needs to be posed to the marketing arm of Gold Council of SA.

I’m forever promoting South African products. From chutney to mayonnaise to rooibos tea. I did find it interesting to hear that “chutney” itself is an Indian word, but the South African version is nothing like the chutneys from India. Obviously it has its roots in the SA Indian population. I never knew that!

And I tell them all the time how insipid their mayonnaise is. So tasteless, and without the tang that we are used to. But I tell them nicely of course!

Rooibos tea is one of my favourites to promote when I meet other mums. Because its caffeine free, good for kids, and because it has other uses too. Like putting cooled rooibos tea in the bath to treat skin allergies. I’ve managed to get so many mums at the local playgroup interested that I have to buy an extra box to take with me to the next gathering. And I need to find some more information about its good qualities.

There are some products that are recognised as being South African – like Jungle Oats. Tiger Brands will be glad to hear that!

One of the first questions you are asked when meeting someone new, is “So where are you from?” and I’m always happy to tell them South Africa. And when they talk about where to spend their holidays, I’m always quick to point out the many different types of holiday you can have here – and with their dollars, pounds and euros, they can get a lot of value for their money.

From wine routes to bungee-jumping and the inevitable “safari,” South Africa has a lot to offer the international tourist. I am quick to tell them of my favourite area, the Garden Route, as well as the many other options the country has. And to make them feel like they are doing something worthwhile, I tell them that we like tourists, because for every eight visitors, one new job is created (see, the ad campaign did work on someone – me!).

When they ask me about the economy, I tell them what is happening, and why I see a positive future for the country. I tell them that the biggest crisis the country has yet to begin to deal with effectively is HIV. But that I know something can be done, because it has been done effectively in Uganda, which now has one of lowest infection rates in Africa.

But there is one question that I can simply not gloss over. Crime. Because everyone associates two things with SA – apartheid, and crime. Initially I was able to tell them that its not that bad, and that I myself had been a victim of crime, but if you were careful, then you weren’t likely to experience a problem.

Until I described what had happened to me. We were attacked at home by some inexperienced thugs who used our own garden fork to stab my husband (not seriously fortunately) in the shoulder, and had thrown a tin of our black paint into our house. I’ve always taken this incident rather lightly, because, well, no-one was killed, no guns were used, and the police never actually did anything about it.

But my perspective changed when I saw the look of horror on a Canadian woman’s face. Because we have come to take crime so lightly, and as so much part of our lives, that it doesn’t phase us anymore. We’re almost immune.

It didn’t help much to hear later that day that two of my family members had been witnesses to separate bank robberies on the same day.

It made me take stock somewhat.

I am still happy to “sell” my country to whoever is willing to give me the time. But I no longer have an answer for the inevitable question “But what about the crime?”

What would your answer be?

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