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Letter from South Africa

by Keith Bryer

South African companies have for years led the world in social investment, using it as a prime tool in the steady erosion of the old apartheid thinking but, after 1994 when the new government took over, they have tended to cut back considerably on such activities in the belief that it is now up to Government to undertake social upliftment.

They have lost sight of the fact that the world has moved on and the full glare of public opinion is now focused on their purely business activities – especially when things go wrong – an oil spill here, a polluted water course there, an industrial strike there. Just like business anywhere else in the world.

But there are differences. The country is a complex mix of what used to be called the first and third worlds. There are pockets of first world opulence, consumerism balanced by third world poverty and ignorance on almost an unimaginable scale. There is a government that is headed by a traditionalist who holds firm tribal beliefs yet is perfectly capable of donning a Boss suit and Gucci shoes to mix easily with the G8 leadership.

All this and more makes public relations here in the widest sense one of the most challenging and exciting sectors of the business world. To give but a few examples:

Target audiences can vary from staff who do their jobs but have in many cases only a hazy idea of the total business context in which their company operates, to the highly sophisticated, highly literate ( and in some cases) deeply cynical. Consumers vary as broadly from those who live lives no different from the middle to upper classes of Britain or Europe to those who are first generation city dwellers living in shacks on the edges of urban areas, to people who are functionally illiterate.

Communications media range from modern to ancient (the latter only reached by means of industrial theatre or simple comic books or, for the illiterate, radio). We have television, local and international. We have newspapers and periodicals the equal of developed countries but…

Want to produce and flight a television commercial? Do it in 11 languages and pay first world rates. Want to put across a point of view on an issue which is even vaguely political? Be prepared to be accused of racism when you seem to be succeeding.

Want to change regulatory impediments to doing business? Be prepared for lobbying of a kind and a style akin to that required to walking across a minefield in a swamp.

Assume a general understanding of the importance of the law of contract, sanctity of private property, constitutionalism, independence of the judiciary – and you are making a mistake. Some understand, a great number do not.

South Africa, Cuba and North Korea, still have substantial numbers of people who believe in communism, just to round off this description of the South African environment.

We also have journalists. Some believe in letting the other side be heard. Others see themselves as operatives of the State. Some ask for bribes but they are in a very small minority. Some regurgitate press releases under their own by-lines. Others have raised cynicism of the press release to world-beating levels. Some believe all corporate publications are ipso facto lies or spin. Others pray daily for a communications job in commerce or industry.

Not much different from the rest of the world then.