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Could Bad Branding Scupper South Africa’s World Cup?

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The murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, erstwhile leader of the white separatist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) party, while tragic for his family, undoubtedly also caused headaches in the South African government too. They were already dealing with the scepticism of the Western media, especially the British press, who had openly been sniping about the tournament preparations, the standard of the stadiums, transport links and safety concerns. Despite preparations for the first-ever football World Cup to be held on African soil being well underway a month ago, the naysayers had still maintained that South Africa wouldn’t be able to pull it off. The last thing the organisers needed was the distraction of a high-profile killing that harked back to the days of apartheid-era racial politics.

But why is there so much scepticism over the South African World Cup? As one of the most developed nations on the continent, with one of the strongest economies, there shouldn’t have been any fear that the event would have to be cancelled at the last moment. Fears first started to be voiced after the tragic deaths of three Togolese footballers on the eve the Africa Cup of Nations in January. Commentators began worrying over whether South Africa had put enough security measures in place to prevent terror attacks. Fans making travel arrangements are reminded repeatedly about the country’s crime rate, with lurid tales of the streets being roamed by armed gangs and trigger-happy drug addicts. At the same time, the police force are denigrated as too fat to fight.

Where is Danny Jordaan? The organising committee’s chief executive should be all over the PR push for the Cup. The success or otherwise on the tournament depends on those who attend enjoying themselves. As they make arrangements to travel to South Africa, their minds should be filled with images of a happy, safe, welcoming country. After football, their main priorities should be safaris, beach holidays, decadent nightclubs amongst a mutiethnic and multicultural population. Those who don’t pay much attention to Africa will generally only remember the most recent stories they have heard. Sadly for the World Cup organisers, South Africa’s recent greatest hits are the Terre’Blanche murder, the antics of Julius Malema and, a little further back the horrific 20% HIV/AIDS infection rate exacerbated by the denialist policies of Thabo Mbeki. As far as they’re concerned, the Rainbow Nation has lost some of the “Madiba Magic” of the Mandela era.

With just 64 days to go, it is probably too late to begin a concerted campaign of good news to generate some positive PR. This should have been happening as soon as the decision had been made to host the World Cup in South Africa. It is one of life’s ironies that while Africans will know much about other countries, those in the west often know little of the continent and its individual countries. It is never safe to assume that people know as much about you as you do about them. A campaign to educate those outside the country about the positive aspects of South African society, in addition to normal tourism promotions, could have done much to assuage any niggling doubts that fans may have had. It would also have made it easier to leave Terre’Blanches killing as what is was: a wage dispute. Instead it has become the latest symbol of crime and deteriorating race relations for those who like to spin the tale that South Africa is falling apart.

South Africa has reportedly spent £800 million to host the World Cup. A successful tournament could generate much more than that for years to come in terms of generating tourism revenue and enticing international investors. While they are to be congratulated on the completion of the building work, one can only despair at the international marketing that has taken place so far. Rather than taking control and managing their message, the South African World Cup organisers have left their public image as a hostage to news events and journalists who realise that bad news makes better copy.

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