by Ares Kalandides
In Summer 2013 the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa ruled that Johannesburg should stop using the slogan of “Africa’s World Class City” as this tile was “misleading and did not represent reality”. As far as I know, it is the first time that a city-branding claim is being taken so seriously and challenged. I have so often aired my doubts on the usefulness of logos and slogans for places, that I do not wish to expand on that now. Nonetheless, I find that this particular example is an interesting case study about the position of slogans in place branding.
For South Africa the Soccer World Cup in 2010 was an occasion to position itself internationally as an outstanding African city: a young, but modern democracy with an impressive bill of rights; a society that transitioned in a (relatively) peaceful way from Apartheid; an “economic powerhouse” as it is often said here. Yet even the first sentence in this paragraph contains an important imprecision: can a country (or a city) really be the subject of an action? Can it have agency? Or isn’t that a misplaced anthropomorphism that we are simply using without considering the consequences of the metaphor? By doing so we are assuming that there is one common interest behind the action. Those who speak for a place usually pursue particular interests, which may or may not represent a large portion of the population.
It is easy to discover the internal contradictions of the whole rhetoric: Yes, an impressive bill of rights, but how are these rights applied in reality? Yes, the Apartheid has ended, but what about the still very clear spatial segregation in the city? Yes, the highest GDP in the country (and the country in the continent), but what about the highest Gini coefficient (i.e. highest inequality) too? We can go a step further and wonder what a “World Class City” means in the first place. Is it about being a centre of world economic power (e.g. the City of London) or world political decisions (e.g. Washington D.C.)? Jo’burg hardly qualifies for either of that, even if seen at a continental level. Its largest economy, the mining industry is still controlled from abroad and its regional political power is very limited. Is it then about quality of life? Then, yes Johannesburg could offer that – but to those who can afford it. Interestingly enough another former relict of British colonialism, Hong Kong, also markets itself as Asia’s World City.
Of course a slogan can be taken to be the projection of a future vision, i.e. Johannesburg aspires to become a World Class African city sometime in the future. This was by the way also the answer that a representative of the Johannesburg municipality gave to the ruling of the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa. How useful an internal tool of branding (such as the design of a “vision”) can be for external purposes is debatable. It clearly creates some unintentionally ridiculous situations such as the image below in the settlement of Diepsloot: In the form of a mural, it is explained to inhabitants how there are to use the toilet system. At the bottom left the Jo’burg logo turns the branding attempts into a comedy…
The logo and the slogan are not the only ways that Jo’burg is branding itself (again the dangerous anthropomorphism). The city landscape, with its two telecommunication towers, its high rises in the CBD and its most recent addition of iconic structures, the Mandela Bridge, is an image reproduced a million times over the internet, postcards and city guides: I suppose that a city with high-rises, qualifies as a world city.
Finally, several projects of urban intervention in the city itself can also be understood as place branding attempts, i.e. instruments that aim to create positive connotations with the city: the Newtown Cultural Precinct, the Fashion District and the Maboneng Precinct are only three of these examples. Strangely enough all three feel artificial and strangely out of place, though at a very different level and with very different outcomes.
Once again, I find myself confirmed in my opinion that city branding is a very delicate matter and can unintentionally be counterproductive. It is absolutely understandable that Johannesburg is looking for its place in the world, but is it logos, slogans, iconic structures and creative quarters that are going to achieve that? I very much doubt it.