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Battered brand South Africa leaves investors wary

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

In the decade bookmarking Nelson Mandela's release from prison South Africa transmogrified from racist pariah to beacon of hope, but a series of tragedies threaten to reverse that gain and spook investors.

The bad news just doesn't stop coming for Africa's largest economy.

In the last year police shot 34 striking miners at Marikana, Oscar Pistorius was arrested for murder, a 17-year-old girl was gang raped and disemboweled and the police were filmed dragging a Mozambican taxidriver to his death.

Stories of rape, gun crime, police brutality and obscene levels of violence flashed across the globe, overshadowing the country's breathtaking landscapes, stunning wildlife and the joy of the 2010 football world cup.

"South Africa's seemingly untouchable reputation started to wane," said Dion Chang, founder of Flux Trends analysts.

"The death of a Mozambican taxi driver at the hands of the police invoked apartheid style brutality, and Oscar Pistorius brought South Africa the harshest form of unwanted publicity."

Even the authorities concede the lustre of the rainbow nation has dimmed.

"In the immediate term, undoubtedly yes," said Nomsa Mazibuko, communication director for state marketing agency Brand South Africa.

"The sheer volume of coverage paints a disturbing picture. Yet this can also seem overblown and at times a little out of context," she warns.

Still, Brand South Africa points to gains since the end of white minority rule 19 years ago, when over 27,000 people were killed.

Gun-related crimes have also dropped 21.2 percent since 2005.

Progress is happening, Mazibuko insists, though "results will not be delivered overnight."

Unfortunately for South Africa the string of tragic events has coincided with deep investor unease.

Concern about corruption, government mismanagement, labour unrest, a shocking education system and unsustainable levels of inequality is widespread.

All three major ratings agencies have downgraded the country in the last year.

"Most investors are happy to stay at the party, but dancing close to the door," said Mohammed Nalla, head of strategic research at Nedbank Capital.

So far the malaise has not been reflected in South African bond or equity prices, but the rand has been pummelled, sending shock waves through the import-dependent economy.

The currency has lost around 20 percent of its value against the dollar, inflating the price of everything from food to cars.

"The rand is the litmus test used by investors to reflect views on South Africa," said Nalla.

On Wednesday the head of South Africa's central bank said the rand's weakness was "overdone" but warned the weakness was fuelling high inflation.

With price increases expected to exceed the bank's six percent limit, policy makers have little room to stimulate the economy even as inflation taxes the poor.

That has raised the spectre of a dangerous mix of slow growth and rising prices.

"Growth remains poor with upside inflation risks, pointing ever more to a stagflationary scenario," said Nalla.

There are more ominous signs investors may be mingling near the exit.

The price of insurance against South African bonds -- so-called credit default swaps (CDS) -- have surged.

In the US, European and other financial crises rising CDS prices were often harbingers of doom.

Many hopes are being pinned on one still contested document which has yet to be implemented, but which would remake South Africa's economy.

"The government's adoption of the National Development Plan as central economic policy, did much to encourage positive brand sentiment," said Chang.

The vast plan aims to improve housing, water, electricity and sanitation, reform the education and public transport system and boost job creation.

But as well as implementing that plan, the country needs to be seen to improve, Chang cautions.

"At this stage we need much more visible counteractions -- trust in the police, swift and effective justice for violent crimes... and an aggressive campaign to highlight the positive aspects of South Africa."

"In this day and age 'soft power' is what builds brands and their reputations."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130324/battered-brand-south-africa-leaves-investors-wary