Someone recently asked me what role I thought South Africans in the diaspora should be playing to support the country's global marketing messages for leisure and business tourism, investment and the drive by tertiary institutions to attract fee-paying foreign students.
How they could be mobilised to become positive ambassadors for the country in general?
The question took me back several years to when I worked in international tourism marketing in Canada, and was confronted on a number of occasions during marketing seminars by angry South African expats, who accused me of lying to Canadians by not sufficiently highlighting the occurrence of violent crime back home.
Unhappy South Africans in the diaspora can be obstacles to the country's PR message. The Canadian expats argued that South Africa was an unsafe country and Canadians would be attacked if they visited. On one occasion a man - part of a couple that had been sitting silently right in front of me during my presentation - stood up during the question-and-answer session, turned towards the audience and said that anyone preparing to visit South Africa must plan their trip as if it would be the last they would ever make.
Over time, I learned to master the art of integrating safety travel tips into our marketing drive in a manner that wouldn't make anyone think we were hiding something. Using local crime stories to illustrate some of the points we made also helped, as it went some way to placing South Africa's crime problem in perspective, even though some aspects of criminality in South Africa did really stand out and make it particularly challenging for us to do our work. But that is a discussion for another column.
When I returned to check my emails following the discussion about how to turn South Africans in the diaspora into positive ambassadors for the country, I found yet another email - probably the fifth in less than a week - promoting the services of an overseas moving company, or preferred destinations for South Africans or emigration tips. The trend seems to be on the rise.
Recent statistics, confirmed by an increasing number of personal anecdotes, point to a worrying rise in the number of South Africans either considering their options, completing paperwork to emigrate, or already leaving to look for a better life in faraway countries.
Just a few years ago, the departees were mostly young whites, encouraged by their parents to go and look for opportunities in Europe, North America or Australia. They feared that BEE and affirmative action policies would restrict job and business prospects in South Africa. Some people considered them two-faced dual nationality fence sitters, whose real love was never reserved for South Africa. Some even went as far as calling them racists who could not stand seeing black people getting opportunities.
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A few of them, the younger ones, hope to return to South Africa one day 'when the situation improves', but others are adamant that this is it and they have no plans to return. Time will tell. Some people who left in the in the late 1980s and early 1990s subsequently returned when South Africa seemed to be socio-economically and politically stable. That is all South Africans ask for - the basics; political and economic stability, safety and fairness - irrespective of ethnic, religious, ideological or racial background.
They expect to live in a country that is not run like the Animal Farm contemporary South Africa seems to have become, where only a combination of political connections and sycophancy open doors to opportunities.
There are many others who remain here despite a strong desire to leave. They too love South Africa but are tired of the seemingly endless mad stories of our body politic. They're frustrated by high levels of arrogance and impunity, and the ease with which criminality by those in politics seems to be defended on technicalities, tolerated or even rewarded with endless redeployments into important positions of trust.
They're only held back from leaving by age, the cost of emigrating, or fear that their academic qualifications and professional experience might not be easy to sell in foreign countries. So, they stick to the love factor and remain with the devil they know. But remaining doesn't mean they're a happy lot.
The love must begin here
Brand ambassadorship begins at home. The answer to how South Africans in the diaspora can be turned into positive ambassadors is simple and complex at the same time. The lives of South Africans in the diaspora do not begin when they leave the country. And those who leave do not cut ties with friends and loved ones who remain here. They cannot be turned into positive country ambassadors while their friends and loved ones remain trapped in an abusive relationship with their country.
The love must start here; positive ambassadorship must be developed and nurtured at home before it can be spread around the world through diaspora networks and whoever comes into contact with them. It is an endless chain that can make or break the reputation of South Africa.
Positive country brand ambassadorship will be hard to generate in the absence of ethical, law-fearing and law-abiding leaders here that understand the need to create a society of fairness in which social justice is valued and all South Africans benefit from equal access to all the opportunities on offer.