Editorial: SA must work at winning Africa’s trust

South Africa's embarrassing retreat from the Central African Republic (CAR) a month ago was the prime cause of this thrashing: South Africa not only lost soldiers in the Bangui battle with the rebels who toppled the country's leader, it was also soon asked by the country's new rulers (and some of the country's neighbours) to stop poking its nose into business far from its own borders.

South Africa should confine itself to Southern African matters, argued some of central Africa's leaders, irked by our clumsy CAR intervention. One of the chief factors contributing to this suspicious attitude to South Africa was the fact that we had failed to forge good relations with the west and central African countries in the area, including several of the Francophone countries – and Nigeria.

Jonathan's visit, then, should be viewed in that context. It's a matter of South Africa attempting to repair matters with key players in other parts of the continent. This is important because there is often a perception, in various capitals on the continent, that South Africa is busy imposing itself on the rest of Africa as a self-elected continental leader.

Naturally, other African countries are ambivalent about this notion. Nigeria, in particular, is likely to resent South Africa muscling in to areas in the west of the continent where it has, traditionally, been the regional overseer. South Africa is frequently reminded by other African nations, often those bridling somewhat under our direction: "We liberated you!" – that is, South Africa was one of the last African countries to be liberated, and South Africans were supported through three decades of exile by countries such as Zambia and Nigeria.

The South African government will have to do the hard work necessary with these African countries – suspicious of our continental aspirations – to do away with perceptions that we are imposing ourselves on them and behaving like a big brother. The evidence is that it took much hard work to get Nigeria to come and sit down and chat like a friend. Inviting African heads of state to a side-meeting during the Brics summit in Durban was a step in the right direction; one that showed the value of such get-togethers.

Avoiding accusations

We should do more. That may well include allowing central African countries to take a lead on CAR and not muscling in as the big brother from down south. We should only get involved in such continental conflicts when we're invited, and when the African Union and/or the United Nations has a clear plan for the precise nature of that involvement.

This will help avoid accusations that South Africa's interventions on the continent are driven by selfish, economic interests and, moreover, that they only benefit the country's ruling elite.

We need to address this issue and clarify our role. Other African countries question whether, when South Africa signs on to be part of blocs such as Brics or the G20, it is representing Africa or just itself. There is the recurring suspicion that, although we claim to be representing the ­continent, we are in fact putting ourselves first. We have to behave in ways that show we are not just being selfish or self-aggrandising in our actions across Africa.

Along lines similar to those of the Jonathan visit, the trip to South Africa by the prime minister of the Central African Republic, Nicolas Tiangaye, two weeks ago, was the first positive sign of a thawing of relations with that country in the aftermath of the Bangui debacle.

Here, the lesson is that South African foreign policy needs to recognise regional powers across the continent and beyond our own little corner of influence as defined by the Southern African Development Community. Chad's role in "regime change" in the CAR exposed South Africa's lack of knowledge of that region's politics, and perhaps even showed a dangerous disregard for the feelings of the region's power brokers.

South Africa needs to be seen as a fellow African country helping to ­liberate and democratise others, not as another coloniser of a special type. Even when it comes to the ongoing argument about a seat on the UN Security Council for an African country, the battle now should not be about who gets it, specifically, but about ensuring that whoever gets it advances the cause of Africa.

There is acknowledgement from Nigeria that South Africa runs the most powerful army on the continent, so it's logical for other countries to run to South Africa first when they need military help. But we can't act ­unilaterally: the way we use our military muscle in other African countries will ­determine whether they accept or reject us.


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