This is a little bit of bragging. I am sorry for that. (No, really!) But I am really proud of having been part of this team. And I am proud of the role that I played. Most of all.. I am Proudly South African.
How do you get people to buy South African goods when they have this perception that something made elsewhere is so much better? Well, Nelson Mandela wanted a campaign to get people to support South African goods and services. And what Madiba wants Madiba gets. At least in my books. The question was – How do we get people to support South African made goods and services in such a young democracy still redefining what being South African means to us? With difficulty… And I was asked to get this off the ground. It wasn’t as easy as you would expect! But it was fun…
Nelson Mandela got everyone and his dog (government, business, civil society and trade unions) together back in 1998 to get them to agree to a joint effort to create jobs in South Africa. His Presidential Job Summit was a breakthrough. Getting everyone on the same page was key to moving us forward in more or less the same direction. It didn’t come up with too many tangible things, but just getting everyone to share thoughts was huge for us. Hell, we were tearing each other apart a few years earlier so we had to get our heads together if we were going to make it together as the new Rainbow Nation. So we got together around the virtual campfire and agreed to many things that should be at the forefront of this new “partnership”. One of the things they agreed to was a short little paragraph about initiating a Buy South African campaign. Doesn’t sound like much does it? Should be easy to get off the ground right? But nothing happened until 2000. Yes, we work in African time…
The problem was that business hated it, government was indifferent and the trade unions were split. But I worked for one of the key supporters of this idea – Ebrahim Patel. Ebrahim was a genius. A hard man and difficult to please, but still a genius. And I loved working with this guy no matter how difficult it was. But I’ll leave him for another day.
Ebrahim was the reason why I joined COSATU and because of him I was made Convener of the Trade and Industry Chamber at NEDLAC. NEDLAC was where all these “stakeholders” (government, labour, civil society and business) negotiated almost everything that had something to do with the economy and social development before it goes to parliament. And the Trade and Industry Chamber negotiated and developed anything from trade deals to competition policy. You name it we negotiated it, wrote it and did it. NEDLAC is light years ahead of anything I have seen in any democracy in the world. The only institution actually making people part of government policy decisions and processes. Imagine that. By the people and for the people. That is a novel idea…
So it was only logical that this Buy South African idea would eventually land up in our laps. And it was my job to make this argument. Well, at least according to Ebrahim. So I made the arguments and threatened and threw my toys until they agreed. Not because they wanted this, but because they thought it would be best to humor me instead of facing a possible mass action (read protest) against them. And they really did not want to face Ebrahim when he was pissed. But they had something up their sleeve as well.
They were pretty sure that this thing will never get off the ground. There were just too many people against it. And the then new President, Thabo Mbeki, wasn’t that eager for it either. It would be a legacy of Nelson Mandela and he was trying to get away from under the shadow of this great man. So they decided to set up a task team that would get this campaign off the ground. Knowing that it would never happen – not if they had anything to do with it. You know – the best way to get rid of something is to create a committee to deal with it! And who better to lead this task team then me. Yep, I pushed so hard that they thought the best way to get back at me is to set me up for failure. So I was the “lucky” one who got selected to lead this campaign. Thanks Ebrahim…
They gave me total freedom to include anyone in the team that I wanted. They were sure that I would fill it up with unionist who would be supportive of the idea. But no. i knew that wouldn’t work. I needed those who were against the idea even closer than those who loved it. Keep your friends close and enemies even closer. Or the tent and the pissing story – you know the deal. So I selected key people from government and business who were totally apposed to the idea. I had to convince them if we wanted any chance of this actually getting off the ground.
They also gave me an almost unlimited budget to work with. And like anyone with too much money I hired a few consultants. Rupert Barnard and Kaiser in Cape Town were perfect. They didn’t give a damn who liked it or not. Their aim was to make it work. And get paid a bucket load if they could pull it off. But the opposition pulled out their first trump card at our first meeting – World Trade Organization (WTO) requirements.
As a member of the WTO, South Africa agreed that the government will not do anything that supports South African companies above foreign companies. All should be treated equally. But we needed the support of government because they had the money. And they could influence business. And we needed business to implement it if we wanted it to be viable.
So we came to standstill almost immediately. We couldn’t move until we knew whether it would be allowed under WTO rules or not. We argued this way and that way. We did research and more research. And still we couldn’t come to an agreement. Four months went past and we still didn’t get any closer to an answer. And then it hit me. A piece of genius. A tactic out of this world! I picked up the phone, called the WTO in Geneva and asked them if we could do this campaign under WTO rules. They said it would be fine and even put it in writing for me. Needless to say, but the other guys were less impressed with my tactics. It was a bit underhanded to contact them directly! To actually ask them. The audacity. Imagine that. I am such a rebel… Not. Wow! The reaction from some of the others were less enthusiastic. Or maybe they were just pissed at the answer that I got. But they had to go ahead with it – they were part of the team. Now we had government on our side – and their money as well. One down, one to go.
We blew money left right and centre to convince everyone that this is a good idea. We benchmarked similar campaigns in Australia, US, Canada and even Indonesia. Our problem was that none of the other countries included environmental and social standards to their campaigns. We wanted the products to not only be of good quality and be made in South Africa, but we also wanted it to be done in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Yes, we were way ahead of everyone else at the time. So we just made it up as we went along.
But consumers would be key to this all. They had to believe in the campaign and buy the products in the end. So we blew some more money on consumer studies to see what would drive consumers to support this campaign. And although we didn’t know it at the time, this would be a breakthrough for the campaign. But not in a way we would have expected.
Those in business opposed to the idea found another obstacle they could throw our way. They couldn’t agree on a name. Business wanted it to be called Made in South Africa. But the unions wanted it to be called Buy South African – the original name they agreed to in 1998. But business was adamant. They would not go for the Buy South African name as it was to prescriptive and they wanted it to say more about the product – that it was Made in South Africa. And the unions refused to budge. They wanted people to buy the stuff. Stuck again.
We used this in our favor for a little while. Getting other key things passed like the budget, management structure and marketing plan. But we knew there would be no campaign if we couldn’t get them to agree on the name. And time was running out.
And we struggled. Again going this way and that way. Trying to convince each side that they should just go with the other name. But no one was willing to budge. Then one night I was reading through some consumer research when it hit me. What was the number one reason people would support this campaign? Easy. Over 80% of people said they would do it because they were proud to be South Africans. We had a name – Proudly South African. They couldn’t fight it. They would not be very proudly South African if they didn’t go with this. They caved in and we had a name. Business was on board.
The rest was easy. We removed one obstacle after the other. And more and more people came on board. And the name was a killer. It just captured the “Madiba magic” in a way no one thought we could. A few more twists and turns and we had everyone on board. We were ready to rock and roll.
That was the most difficult time for me. We had to employ people to run this. My job was only to get it to the launch stage. It took 18 months of my life. It consumed me and took everything out of me. I had to out maneuver opponents and overcome obstacles every day. It drove me crazy, but I loved it. And we had a great team backing it and working on it. But it was time to let go. My little baby has grown up and was ready to leave home. So we let it go. And the rest is history.
I was proud. I was Proudly South African…