Exploring the heart of a nation in unprecedented times

The year 2020 has now earned its rightful place in history as the year of the unprecedented, some even take it further to describe it as the year in which everything that could go wrong, inexplicably did.

As the world struggled to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement quickly eclipsed all talks of COVID-19, lockdowns and economic catastrophes. Even though the BLM had existed prior to the pandemic, with even more disturbing images of unarmed Black males dying at the hands of police, George Floyd in particular took centre stage during a time in which our collective humanity faced an uncertain future.

The collective physical fragility and uncertainty of living through a pandemic or the resultant economic, political and racial disparities it exposed appears to be an essential ingredient required to spark a mass awakening that could easily be described as revolutionary.

As the world contends with the reality of race, racism and structural discrimination, South Africa unlike the rest of the world, has had to navigate through these complex issues on a daily basis since its inception as a country. However, even within that complex web of identity, South Africa continues to astonish the world in how it manages to navigate its way through its journey of becoming and unbecoming. As revolutionary an act as it was for Nelson Mandela to become President choose South Africa as a nation, it is an even more revolutionary act for each and every South African to choose to be a nation every day.

It was this daily mindset, namely that it is a revolutionary act for each and every South African to choose to be a nation every day that led Brand South Africa in 2017 to embark on a research journey that would seek to gain deeper insights into the behaviour, attitudes and values of South Africans, and to find how these shape ‘who we are’ – as a nation.

By designing a research methodology involving an annual national omnibus survey (2500 respondents), monthly online/mobile surveys (350 respondents/month), focus groups (12 per annum), and in-depth interviews (10); a segmentation model was birthed through a comprehensive analysis of more than 6,000 research records derived from the quantitative and qualitative methods, ten key behaviour groups were identified. These ten behaviour groups clearly showed unique perspectives on the central tenants of the South African nation- and society. One key lesson stands out, that in the midst of the multi-verse of South Africa – our people share much more, and have much more in common, than what one may expect.

The behavioural groups and the subsequent segmentation model that gave them prominence won Over-all Best Research Award, and the Kantar Innovation Award at the 2018 Annual Southern African Market Research Association Conference (June 2018). The model won these awards not only for its unique approach, but due to the fact that it was the first in the history of South Africa in which South African identities superseded race and socio-economic status, to instead reflect attitudes and mind-sets. The line of questioning was able to ascertain the soul of what makes South African’s and how and why they chose to think and behave in certain ways.

Even though the behavioural groups saw beyond that which are seminal points of history, identity and economic status, it sought to highlight broad questions of nationhood; factors that influence both its making and un-making; how it is constituted through what people do, and how they do it, can also be the source of a nation’s un-doing.  The segmentation model was influenced by Homi K Bhabha’s seminal work – Nation and Narration, where he states that a nation is a culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice and devotion. This may have several implications, but most importantly is the fact that this supposedly grand historical march, the sacrifices made- and devotion people have towards the ‘nation’, is not, and can never be a destination. This is especially true in the South African context. In this case, the journey is and will likely remain just that, while the destination continues to unfold while we seek to become.

The sacrifices of our past have not only defined who we are today (as expressed in the values contained in the preamble of the South African Constitution), but, due to the brief history of nationhood that we share since 1994, means that the long march towards identifying and drawing the outlines of that South African national soul, will be a perpetual work in progress. The goal is not to concoct a final representational model of South African nationhood that fixes meaning for all time, but rather to draw the rough outline of behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs that inform the evolution of features, coherences and contradictions, that when taken together shed light not on the Who We Are – but serves as a guide towards what we are becoming.

The lessons learnt from the behaviour groups that can be adopted in the world at this time is that each and every point in history has led us precisely to this moment in time, thus we should all understand that the state of a nation or nationhood is one that cannot be transfixed in time, but one that should be considered to be a living organism that must change, grow and evolve in order for it to survive. It is therefore truly a revolutionary act to, want to – every day, choose to be a Nation, and to participate in its making.