Fear and separation

By Thane on Tue 09 August 2011

What an interesting experience we had this past weekend travelling to Alexandra in Johannesburg ("Alex" for short) for our Building Brands elective - our task, after being split up into small groups of 4 to 5 people, was to perform in-depth, qualitative interviews with 3 people, each of approximately 30 to 45 minutes in length, in order to gain a deeper understanding of a very small sample of the people and their relationships with their brands. Each small group was accompanied by a guide who lives in Alex.

There is a richness and depth in this community that can only be experienced by seeing them for yourself, in person, on the ground, on their terms - as it should be when you walk into someone else's home.

In terms of brands, some of the people here in the lower income groups aspire to wear Carvela shoes and Diesel jeans, sometimes saving for months to buy a pair, or offer them as bribes to get their children to finish their schooling. They would love to drive a BMW or a Mercedes. Within their respective income groups, they pay just that little extra for their premium food or clothing brands, sometimes only on special occasions. Just like all the rest of us, they seek significance, and it would be interesting to perform more academic studies on the relationship between their individual identities and the brands to which they aspire.

Being the only Caucasian person in my group, I seemed to be the object of much spectacle in the eyes of the people of Alex: "what's the white man doing in Alex?" they would ask each other and our guide. I cringe thinking of what it must have been like for non-Caucasians in South Africa in the apartheid years, and by default I carry a legacy everywhere the colour of my skin is visible. I am a walking brand, evoking a history of millions of memories and emotional associations by my mere presence there. It's a brand both carefully and carelessly crafted by my predecessors; sometimes, unfortunately, also lived out by some of my contemporaries, continually acknowledging its persistence.

One of our interviewees, despite being overwhelmingly welcoming to all of us, me included, when the conversation happened to tend in the direction of politics, glazed over at one point, reciting a script that seems to have played through her mind (and most likely conversations with many others in her circles) a number of times: "South Africa is for the blacks - all of the foreigners and the whites must go."

In transactional psychology terms, her recitation would probably be classified as typical parent data: completely devoid of adult, rational thinking, purely the playing of a recording to allay, at least a little, some internal discomfort; something we all engage in on a daily basis in one way or another. In social constructionist terms, it would seem to me to be an expression of her object self: the socially constructed "me" speaking to the "generalised other" that is her community. Whatever the technical term for what happened there, I don't hold her personally accountable for her remarks, as I think I understand how those scripts were constructed. What's most concerning for me is that this seems to be a conversation that's still taking place, internally in people's minds and most likely externally out on the streets, in August of 2011.

The architecture of a brand is such a complex thing, primarily because we're dealing with the human mind here. This particular brand of which I speak is a deeply embedded one, carried by millions here in South Africa. Most seem to attempt to plaster over it with trite apologies as they're rushing about building walls to protect themselves in some way or another from its looming, growing, menacing presence.

Is this fear justified, or is it an illusion bolstered by our deep separation?

"White South Africa" is still, quite evidently, in desperate need of a re- branding, and those who still support the old brand in any way, playing out the old scripts, whichever side of the "line" they stand on, need to be freed of their terminal myopia (perhaps by a first-hand meeting of the other of which they are so afraid).

We need to change the conversations South Africans are having, in their own minds and in their communities, and this will only happen when there's growing evidence at an ever-increasing number of touch points in favour of this change.