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Visiting South Africa recently for the first time in 12 years was a revelation. I saw a land whose time has come and people who will play a lead role in the development of trade between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world.

Appropriately, the IAA was holding its second African Advertising Congress in Johannesburg at the same time as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was making an official visit to discuss future trading between Europe and South Africa. It was a pity that the two events clashed because President Nelson Mandela was due to open the Congress. I guess Helmut Kohl and the European Union take precedence.

More than 200 delegates, of whom almost 50% came from other African countries, is testimony that this part of the world means business. The delegates were treated to a succession of informative and well-thought-out presentations by speakers from all the marketing disciplines across Africa, as well as Europe and North America.

The idea to have a Youth Congress entitled "Getting Ahead in African Advertising" at the same time as the main Congress ensured that this new lifeblood for the advertising industry was able to listen to the speeches before moving on to their own Congress later in the day.

I found it most exhilarating to talk to these young people, eager to know what is going on in the rest of the world. Many of the hundred or so youth delegates were studying at the Association of Advertising Agencies' School in Johannesburg. Others were sponsored by some of South Africa's leading advertising agencies.

My overriding memories of this conference were the enormous complexities involved in advertising in Africa-a continent of 53 countries with 850 languages. Leading marketing personalities from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, as well as the U.K., North America and the host country, reminded us of the need to return to the basics of selling and to avoid complicated creative approaches which are not suited to the marketplace.

The importance of understanding the cultural differences as well as commonalities, body language and taboos was illustrated by specialist speakers.

One speaker related his firsthand experience with the Bantu people. Their strong philosophical beliefs, called Ubuntu, affects their thinking and behavior. Ubuntu refers to the bonding of community and an extended family ethic.

The group is greater than the sum of its parts, so as individuals they are cast in the warrior mold. This historic warrior value establishes the individual's personal aura, called Isithunzi in the Nguni languages.

As the speaker said, we ignore factors like these at our peril when trying to communicate marketing principles. It is so easy to completely miss the consumer altogether.

Then to hear Rosalie Finlayson, a leading lecturer in Language Studies at the local university, UNISA, speak to us in English, Afrikaans and perfect Xhosa was remarkable. Those Xhosa speakers in her audience appreciated it wholeheartedly.

She even coaxed leading luminaries on stage to demonstrate the Toyi Toyi, best described as the African way of stepping forward without going anywhere.

But believe you me, the Africans are going places if this conference was any measure. The theme of the conference, "Africa-The Communicators Challenge," was well and truly met. We all need to prepare ourselves for the African Challenge.

Certainly, the U.K. is not standing idly by.

Michael Hook is a 40-year veteran of the international advertising scene. Seven years ago, he founded Media Mondiale, a worldwide media management company based in England.

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