The Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index is widely recognised by governments around the world as a reliable and useful indicator of how their countries are regarded internationally.

Austria, for example, recently stated that it intends lifting itself from its 13th position in the most recent edition of the index – for 2011, issued in October – to at least 10th.

The index ranks 50 globally or regionally powerful countries based on an opinion survey of some 20 000 people in 20 key countries among the 50. The survey asks them what they think of each country’s friendliness to visitors, their governance, quality of their exports, culture, tourism, attractiveness to investments, innovativeness, and so on.

SA ranked 36th in the 2011 index, up one position from 2010. Simon Anholt, a member of the UK government’s Public Diplomacy Board, which created the index, interpreted the 2011 index as meaning that “South Africa’s international standing is still patchy, and its progress uncertain”.

“The legacy of the World Cup is still a very mixed one, and the country’s image is still poised between one so weak as to be almost negative, and something much more promising among certain populations.

“This is a long haul and South Africa has really only just begun its journey towards a higher profile and greater international esteem; I would suggest that it needs to build its ‘grand strategy around engaging with the countries it wishes to lead, more than with those it wishes to follow’.”

What that last remark seemed to mean is that SA needed to improve its diplomatic performance globally. This reflected SA’s drop by one rung, to 41st, in the governance index which measures not only governance domestically but also internationally.

Anholt picked out several notable features of SA’s latest ranking. One of the most striking perhaps is that South Africans themselves rank SA fourth, so obviously we don’t lack self-esteem!

Though evidently we do lack a sense of reality.

Outside SA, the Indians like us most, ranking us 19th, and the Japanese least, ranking us 47th. Generally Commonwealth, Western European and South American countries rank us higher than Central and Eastern European and East Asian countries, who rank us lowest. North American nations mostly sit in between.

Our best index is culture, where we rank 25th, greatly helped by sport, where we rank 16th, and our worst is governance, as mentioned, where we are 41st.

Anholt remarked also on a noticeable drop in international perceptions that South Africans are “warm and friendly”, a worrying shift so soon after the soccer World Cup when we hosted so many foreigners to try and impress them with how nice we were.

Another perception of concern is the large gap between our 18th ranking on “familiarity”, and our 37th place on “favourability”. This means we’re fairly well known as a “nation brand”, but the perceptions tend to the negative, including that we are a dangerous place to visit and, again, that we are not well governed.

The top 10 places are held by the US, Germany, UK, France, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, Switzerland and Sweden, in that order.

Of the African countries, only Egypt is above SA, at 33rd, and after us come Kenya, 47th, Nigeria, 48th, and Angola, 49th, above only Iran. The optimistic view is that we are deemed important enough to be included at all in the 50 nations ranked, and second that 36th is a not a bad ranking.

But the government, correctly, is not complacent, and aims to lift SA into the top 20 by 2020. Or at least those elements of the government that care, which is evidently not everyone, and maybe not those who really count.

One can take the view that there are better gauges of global sentiment towards SA such as the interest we have to pay to raise capital on international markets, how much foreign investment we are attracting, how many tourists actually visit, and so on.

These data measure how foreigners’ opinions translate into actions.

On those measures the picture is also mixed. And there is no doubt that perceptions of a country’s image do matter and are worth paying attention to, perhaps most significantly as a predictor of future action.

Some in the government would also question the sample which the Anholt index draws on – citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Turkey, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt and SA itself.

They might argue that this sample is weighted in favour of the developed world, though our Brics partners are there too.

Our falling ranking on international governance could very well be related to perceptions, mostly in Western countries, that we are soft on dictators in our foreign relations.

Anholt’s rather cryptic suggestion that SA should engage “with the countries it wishes to lead, more than with those it wishes to follow”, seems to allude to that. If so, the SA government might decide to reject that advice as biased towards the West.

Nonetheless, the 20 countries surveyed for the index are probably the most influential in determining things that really matter for us, like investment, tourism and trade.

In any case, if the government is serious about its own aim of climbing 16 rungs in eight years, we will all – from the government down – have to improve our national performance and burnish Brand SA.