The powerful brand fighting corruption in Africa

By Tierra Howard, CNN Written by

It’s been a decade since the Supreme Court of South Africa overturned apartheid and paved the way for all South Africans to vote.

Two years after the Court released its landmark decision, South African photographer Mbali Nyika secured what she calls her “quintessential icon” and became a household name, meeting Nelson Mandela and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

By then, she was working for the annual Johannesburg Style Week. Shot as an exhibition in a former printing company, the show featured dozens of models dressed in outlandish clothing and paired with totally African music and art. And that’s when she was introduced to Mick Jones and Glyn Roberts, the African cultural icon and brand with the unmistakable brand of most of the world.

Homegrown South African brand Southern Comfort, founded in 1946 in South Africa, doesn’t offer its drinks across the entire continent. The company prefers to partner with progressive and socially conscious companies that have similar values.

Back then, says Nyika, Jones and Roberts were trying to create something to balance the calories and the calories alone in South Africa’s youth. One of the strangest things about Southern Comfort’s marketing campaigns, says Nyika, is that there was very little longevity on their logos: When the label of their drink disappeared, it was replaced with new logos, which they had to keep changing again as they changed their production methods.

The company made the mistake, Nyika says, of putting too much energy into the seductive nature of the drink itself — the black velour cocoon that glows when a light hits it, the theramin and caffeine in the coconut milk-based beverage. And this, she says, is where Nyika and Southern Comfort found their direct parallels.

“They were saying ‘we know how to market, we know how to market to young people in that generation,’ ” Nyika says. “The problem with that is, it’s a large part of that youth are homeless, it’s a large part of that youth are unemployable and it’s a large part of that youth are suffering out there.”

And that’s why, Nyika says, she has so much sympathy for Southern Comfort and its efforts to manufacture an iconic drink for a generation facing a future of joblessness and destitution. The company has not only teamed up with Vested Brands (an organisation that supports entrepreneurship) to create a series of in-store pop-up stores across South Africa, but has also applied for a license to export the drink to other countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. The move is indicative of a new consciousness among the company and its supporters, Nyika says.

“The Western world is so arrogant,” Nyika says. “Southern Comfort is a reminder that the old Africa was not just about my grandfather turning on the pot for dinner, that we didn’t make our clothes in shops where the goods are stock and the customer can leave the shops without having to pay.”

There are Western stereotypes of Africa, Nyika says, that exclude those who are excluded by the economic system and even the fake national stories that project Western-style patriotism.

“We’ve been wrongfully cast off as small people, as ones who all wanna just take and leave and say ‘yeah, it’s great to be an oppressor, it’s great to be a do-gooder,’ but actually we are doing good for ourselves. We are doing good for our communities and we are doing good for our future generation.

“I feel that I belong in Africa. There’s no way that I belong in the world of Western corporate branding. I belong to Africa, and I’m actually not so good at hiding that.”

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