Almost every time I have climbed into a taxi for the past five years in Beijing I have had an ambiguous feeling towards talking to the taxi driver. Initially I was quite excited when I first started to understand what these mainly men where saying through their thick local Beijing accents, but since the day I could manage a basic Mandarin conversation the ambiguity has set in. After answering the standard question of which nationality I am, I always wait for the inevitable follow-up statement, "But you don't look South African, you don't look black."
The other stereotypes are not as misinformed: most Chinese people know that SA is rich in diamonds (De Beers created one of the largest diamond consuming markets in the world from scratch in under 20 years), rich in gold and that it is a very beautiful country. But of late, due to a barrage of local negative publicity, SA is also portrayed as a country in which Chinese people are often purposefully targeted for robbery and murder.
SA cherishes its diversity, but it is exactly this diversity that creates an enormous challenge for those wishing to promote South Africa in various countries abroad.
Europeans are probably the most informed on SA; while recognising our multinational corporation brands, they also appreciate the fact that we have breathtaking African wildlife, beautiful beaches, rich indigenous cultures and fine wine to enjoy while on holiday. Because of this, it makes complete sense to magnify the Africa-ness part of our diversity in an attempt to increase tourist numbers to our shores, a strategy that has been hugely successful.
But one size definitely does not fit all. During the recently held Forum on China - Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) summit in Beijing, the streets were lined with billboards and posters depicting Africa purely as a place of wildlife, with giraffes and zebras aplenty, but not a single trace of vibrant cities or growing economies.
SA's corporate image in particular is further hampered by the low-key approach adopted by its most successful companies operating in China.
SABMiller's unparalleled success in China has largely been influenced by the fact that it has bought local breweries, maintained the local brands and improved on technology and management standards at the plants. As such, the overwhelming majority of the locals drinking the beer do not even know that the company is foreign owned.
MIH (Naspers) has also made impressive inroads into the Chinese media market; however, due to the sensitive political nature of the industry, it correctly pursues a strategy of keeping a low profile.
As a result, Chinese people who have never been to SA simply do not know that we have a thriving, mature economy. When Chinese people think of SA, they think of wildlife, crime and mineral extraction.
To exasperate the situation even further, it is evident that the local Chinese media is no wiser than the ordinary man on the street. Almost every journalist I spoke with during the FOCAC summit had little idea about successful SA companies operating in China. They had no idea that China's arguably second most-recognised national beer brand, Snowflake, is partially owned by SABMiller; were shocked to hear that one of Beijing's most widely circulated daily newspapers, Beijing Youth Daily, is partially owned by MIH's print media; and outright disbelieved that China's most popular instant messaging computer program, Tencent QQ, is partially owned by MIH's Internet media.
Clearly, China's media messengers would be a good place to start with promoting South Africa Inc.
Furthermore, by looking at the import categories that China sources from SA, it is also difficult to fault Chinese business of being ignorant of our economy's state of affairs. Almost 80% of SA's exports to China consists of base metals and mineral products, indicating little in the way of value-added processing indicative of mature economies.
When one analyses SA - China, and SA - India bilateral trading figures for 2005, it also becomes apparent that although the majority of SA's exports to India too were dominated by mineral resources, at least 10% or more was accounted for by technology based products. It is very likely that this is due to India's better informed perception of SA than of that held in China.
Toby Cao knows all too well the challenge SA faces in branding itself in China. Cao produces Liqui-Fruit juice under license in China but also imports some wine brands from the Stellenbosch area. Due to the negligible expatriate market in China, Cao's target market is naturally the local consumer.
But selling SA products to local consumers is everything but easy, according to Cao. "Every time I speak to a restaurant, hotel or distributor I first have to explain to them that South Africa is a developed economy, that it is capable of producing quality products," he says.
When asked if the FOCAC deliberations will have a positive impact on his business, he stated: "I actually think FOCAC will have no positive influence of my business operations. If anything, FOCAC has placed all African countries, SA included, on the same platform. It just reinforces the misconception that the SA economy is as underdeveloped as several other African countries.
"Chinese people do not know SA has a developed economy; nothing is ever published in newspapers or shown on TV that depicts SA as a country with modern technology, not even modern mining technology. The only thing that is ever shown is footage of rural areas, the wild part, the animal part."
Such misconceptions cannot be conducive to SAs goals of attracting significant foreign direct investment, nor can it be beneficial for companies wishing to partner with Chinese companies either in the China market itself or in third markets.
Sasol's multi-billion dollar coal-to-liquids agreement with China's Shenhua Corporation went a far way to prove what technologies SA is capable of. Furthermore, SA is also currently in the enviable position of playing host to the 2010 World Cup Football, something that does not go by unnoticed by a football obsessed nation like China. The premier sporting event will provide SA with multiple and varied opportunities to showcase itself.
Sasol and soccer are not enough to brand SA in a light deserving of improved business opportunities and increased investment, however, and while it is acceptable to promote SA as a country of the big five, perhaps it is more pertinent that we start to promote South Africa Inc in line with what it really is. Perhaps then in five years from now, I will also look more forward to chatting to my cabbie.