Johannesburg - About 10 years ago, President Jacob Zuma led a South African delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and journalists were more fascinated with how he could have and love more than one wife than what South Africa had to offer the world.
Similar international bodies for a decade now have sadly come to take us less seriously, given the way in which Zuma, through his numerous misjudgments, has come to hurt the country's image abroad.
From having an internationalist like Thabo Mbeki, with a well-cultivated sense of international relations, to a street-smart but internationally bland leader, the reputation capital of South Africa took more of a battering that we care to admit.
Brand South Africa, tasked with the cultivation of this brand abroad, has had its hands tight behind its back over the past few years as South Africa took a terrible beating with each scandal that hit international headlines.
Every negative word written here about South Africa is quickly circulated abroad and affects our reputation balance sheet badly - even an agency that was set up purely to market us internationally could not polish our image with Zuma at the helm.
The election of Cyril Ramaphosa is a sudden shot in the arm for the repositioning of South Africa, yet it's going to be a tough road when many investors have already firmly placed us in the category of a typical African failed state.
If the repeated downgrades are anything to go by, South Africa is going to need more than pretty pictures, videos and slogans to recover from the damage Zuma’s reign of reputation terror has unleashed.
It's exhausting to enumerate what things have drowned out the shining light that South Africa was in the day where it was "alive with possibility" following the 1994 breakthrough.
Ramaphosa may well be the closest thing to what Mandela meant for "our international street cred", and his departure to Davos may be the beginning of a long journey to rescue our country’s long-lost reputation.
It seems to me the new ANC leadership recognise such a project will require bold decisions, if some of the NEC's decisions this past weekend are anything to go by.
The firing of the Eskom board was meant to send the strongest message yet that this administration is determined to deal with the creation of a decent investment climate.
The brilliant Eskom board now in place cannot afford to fail - some of the best business and public sector brains have been assembled to sort out the biggest determinant of investment: energy security. These are the kind of building blocks Brand SA needs to restore confidence. Slogans and pretty pictures are fine and we have enough - but bold leadership, the type Mandela is immortalised for, is what will give investors a renewed sense of hope in our economy.
Ramaphosa and the team in Davos must be able to say the following things to start this journey:
* We are about to see the back of the Zuma years in content and form: Investors will want assurances that some of the glaringly corrupt ministries and some crucial portfolios with a potential to disrupt the investment climate will be firmly under Ramaphosa’s control.
* We're dealing firmly with state capture: The state capture debacle made international headlines, giving an impression that South Africa isn't in charge of its own destiny. This terrible message has to be reversed in the minds of investors, or we can kiss economic growth goodbye.
* We are dealing with crime and criminality: The recent decisions of the Police Ministry that work towards stabilising the crime-fighting capacity are a crucial development that has given South Africa a good story to tell.
* We have a stable constitution and we respect the rule of law: The recent court judgments, especially those ruling against Zuma, are a good story to tell the international community. Obviously it does not help that Zuma is still clinging to office and using the last kicks of a dying horse "wrecking-ball approach" to appeal these judgments.
This must be resolved by firing Zuma sooner rather than later. With the NEC decision to negotiate an exit plan, Ramaphosa will be able to whisper in the ears of whoever is concerned that Zuma is yesterday’s man and it’s a matter of time before he goes quietly into his Nkandla monstrosity, where his wrecking ball can swing no more.
* We have a business-friendly environment: Ending policy uncertainty, starting with cleaning up the Mining Charter, for example, would send a strong message if it happens. The urgent removal of Mosebenzi Zwane would be a strong message to the investor community in this crucial industry. Nothing else would calm the markets on this one.
* We are strengthening our state-owned enterprises: The appointment of Jabu Mabuza to head up Eskom is a master stroke. Mabuza, as head of Business Leadership SA, has been a fierce critic of the current administration while chairing the board of Telkom - a success story of collaboration between private and public sectors. He is now being dispatched to sort out the beleaguered Eskom. This can only bode well for Brand South Africa.
These simple messages are quite frankly all the investor community wants to hear. They are tired of slogans not useful for growth and development; they are tired of policy goalposts being moved all over the place; and they are clearly exhausted with ill-considered decisions where governance of the country is concerned.
So far for these missteps we have been punished as a country, as we now drown in junk status. The new messages suggested here can only be preceded by solid and unambiguous actions of bold leadership.
As we celebrate 100 years of Mandela, our country stands at a reputational management crossroads: we must adapt or die. We can’t afford mixed messages about Brand SA as we go into Davos.
Finally, we need to take stock of what exercises of this nature can produce for our quest to regain international credibility. Brand SA must lead the way in this, but even with all its good intentions, the only thing that will take us out of the rut is bold leadership. Cometh the hour, cometh the man - the world is waiting with bated breath.
* Tabane is the author of Let’s Talk Frankly and host of Power Perspective on Power 98.7.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.