SA and Nigeria need to complement each other, not compete
But should we be talking to some of our continental counterparts a little more and assuming the role of their spokesperson with other global players a little less?
South Africa's position has clearly irritated its African colleagues. The widely publicised Guardian interview with Zambia's Vice-President Guy Scott, who expressed his loathing for South Africa's arrogance and lack of subtlety, threw the matter into stark relief.
It has also manifested in the chilly diplomatic relations between another emerging major on the continent Nigeria, that has recently begun to thaw, following the state visit by Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan last week.
In the case of Nigeria, analysts believe there is far more to be gained for Africa's geopolitical interests by harnessing the forces of "complementarity", between the continent's two emerging giants.
Local politicians too, are advocating this, with South Africa's Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan highlighting the need to emphasise complementarity between South Africa and Nigeria, during the closing hours of the 2013 World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Cape Town last week.
"For the next 10 years or so we should not talk too much about competition [between Nigeria and South Africa]. How can we complement each other? Because that's what going to enable us to build successful experiments around the continent," said Gordhan.
The reality that a host of South African companies, like Shoprite and MTN are moving into Nigeria's 160-million strong market and doing extremely well there, has also perhaps persuaded South African politicians that it is in the national interest to work harder at wooing Nigeria.
South Africa nevertheless remains the dominant economy in Africa, at least for the medium term.
Despite some recent fracturing of its public image – most notably the events of Marikana – and the resultant financial fallout, South Africa retains its position as the most competitive country on the continent, according to the 2013 Africa Competitiveness Report.
It ranks 52 out of 144 in terms of global competitiveness, and is the first among other African countries in the world-wide rankings.
It also outranks two Brics countries India and Russia
On top of this we have some of the world's best banks, financial markets and a first class legislative regime.
That position is however not secure. We slipped in the rankings from 50 last year to 52 this year, and it is becoming clear that it will get worse unless we begin to improve some basic, crucial pillars to economic development such as education and health.
Nigeria by comparison ranks 115. It faces extreme infrastructure challenges, particularly electricity. It is also experiencing growing security problems in the form of trouble in the Niger Delta and religious violence from groups such as Boko Haram.
But on the index ranking, despite these difficulties, Nigeria leapt from a place of 127 to 115 in the matter of a year.
Rapid economic growth
Oladiran Bello, head of the governance of Africa's resources programme at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), pointed out that even in the face of major infrastructure and security challenges, Nigeria has sustained rapid economic growth.
Research from BNP Paribas puts Nigeria's economic growth at 8.6% between 2001 and 2011, with a slight drop off to 6.4% in 2012.
If Nigeria can address the security, infrastructure and other issues it faces, "it can unleash double digit growth", Bello told the Mail & Guardian.
While Nigeria's economy has been a star performer, this had not translated into a larger role on the diplomatic front, he noted.
South Africa has managed to use its relative stability since democracy to position itself on the global stage, but has been battling to take this diplomatic strength, particularly in recent years, and leverage greater economic growth.
"Nigeria and South Africa are two halves of what Africa needs," said Bello.
The way in which China and India work together to pursue matters of common interest, despite mutual distrust and areas of fierce competition, is something South Africa and Nigeria could emulate, suggested Bello.
Both states need to work harder to increase the status of the binational commission, said Bello, especially through greater participation by the countries two presidents in the commission's work. The body was set up a decade ago to manage bilateral relations between Nigeria and South Africa.
If South Africa can better manage this relationship better particularly from a diplomatic perspective, the benefits could be extensive, he noted.