The African Country Everyone Loves To Hate: Is South Africa The New Underdog?

Written by Dana Sanchez

Greedy. Culturally insensitive. Imposing. Aggressive. Unwilling to listen to local advice.

These are just a few terms other Africans use to describe South Africans, according to new research by an organization whose job it is to sugar coat South Africa.

Brand SA is a South African government-funded agency that markets South Africa abroad. It is mandated to convince skeptical Africans that South Africans are friendly, trustworthy people, and that the country is open for business. Their work is cut out for them, DailyMaverick reported.

In an effort to gauge perceptions of South Africa and South Africans in other African countries, Brand SA did not poll all African countries. Instead, faced with budget restrictions, it focused on key countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Angola,  Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

South Africa and South Africans have a serious image problem on the African continent, Brand SA concluded. This has serious implications for companies looking to do business there, said Simon Allison in DailyMaverick.

But it wasn’t all bad news. Africans love South Africa’s successful transition from apartheid to democracy. Its cultural exports are generally well received — especially South African chain stores and restaurants such as Pep, Shoprite and Debonairs, and artists such as Black Coffee, who fill concert arenas in Accra, Nairobi, and Lagos. But the negatives outweigh the positives.

Reasearhcers interviewed business people, academics and government officials to determine how South Africa is perceived. The results? South Africans are greedy, culturally insensitive, perceived as imposing, aggressive and unwilling to listen to local advice, according to research head Petrus de Kock.


Angolans haven’t forgotten that they were at war with South Africa during apartheid. Angola welcomes South African investment and is friendly with the ANC-led government, but those who responded to the survey said South African companies don’t embrace Portuguese or local business customs.

More than 150 South African companies do business in Nigeria, creating the perception that lack of competitiveness is forcing South African businesses to look for new opportunities elsewhere, and that the South African economy has lost its edge.

On the plus side, Nigeria is adopting South African models when it comes to developing gated communities and shopping malls.

Kenyans who responded to the survey said they perceive South Africans as overly aggressive and quick to make a deal. De Kock argued that this is because South Africans, coming from a country with good laws and a strong legal system, don’t feel the need to develop the same degree of personal trust with business partners as Kenyans, who may not have access to similar legal recourse. On the plus side, South Africa is seen as a creative hub and magnet for arts and entertainment, DailyMaverick reported.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africans are admired as good farmers.

At a presentation this week at the University of Johannesburg, De Kock did not mention xenophobic violence, considered the most important influence on South Africa’s bad reputation, DailyMaverick reported.

Negative perceptions of South Africa should be understood in a historical perspective, said Chris Landsberg, University of Johannesburg chairman of African diplomacy and foreign policy. “We had a crude, hard, bullying, aggressive reputation pre-1994 that was very well earned,” Landsberg said. “We’ve put that reputation to bed.”

South Africa’s reputation in Africa is a vital component of the country’s “soft power” — its ability to persuade rather than force other countries to do what it wants, Lansberg added. If the South African government wants to change these perceptions, it must work closely with the private sector. Businesses are usually directly involved in shaping those perceptions in Africa.

“I think corporate South Africa must take a hard look at how they engage in the continent and the ramifications of their modes of operation and what it means for the country,” Lansberg said, according to DailyMaverick.