Africa's disdain for Mzansi is unwarranted

The African continent tends to view the southern tip in a negative light, ignoring the logs in its own eyes, writes Charles Onyango-Obbo.

The African continent tends to view the southern tip in a negative light, ignoring the logs in its own eyes, writes Charles Onyango-Obbo.

When you follow events in South Africa from the equator, they don’t look rosy at all.

Meanwhile, the politically correct in Mzansi – and nearly everyone else on the rest of the continent – tend to fret about what they see as a bigger problem: the fact that most South Africans think they are not part of Africa. That Africa is that dark, unhappy mass “north of the Limpopo”.

One element of that is true. Those famous satellite photos of Africa at night show that below the Sahara is one dark mass – until you get to South Africa, where you pick up quite a bit of night light. Well, all sub-Saharan countries together still consume less electricity than New York City – if you exclude South Africa.

That “Africa up there” doesn’t have a better view of South Africa, either. To them, South Africa is all about rape, murder, intransigent workers (who are occasionally murdered by police), a president who is always dancing his way to a new wife, a country torn apart by racist angst, and a rich economy being eaten up by black economic empowerment fat cats and a corrupt ANC.

So, whereas South Africans think the rest of Africa is trapped in some kind of geographical peril, that mass in turn thinks South Africa is doomed to extinction because of a very malignant social malaise.

South African exceptionalism is wrong-headed, of course, but Africa-minus-Mzansi has also misread South Africa.

Even conjuring the worst scenario I could, it is still clear that South Africa is not about to collapse. At every visit I’m surprised at how the place, especially Johannesburg, is changing. The pace is almost dizzying – new malls, housing complexes, you name it. Someone is obviously making lots of money.

Nigeria might have overtaken South Africa as Africa’s largest economy, but it will be a long time before it beats it as the richest. In terms of what American journalist Fareed Zakaria calls “earned wealth” – wealth that is not dug out of the ground in the form of oil or coltan – South Africa is still way ahead, out on its own.

Yes, it is an embarrassingly un-equal society. But it is in the response to that inequality that South Africans are truly different from the rest of the continent. There is a lot of inequality in Africa, and the gap is growing in almost all the countries that are becoming rich. In South Africa, though, there is a very unAfrican touch to the debate about inequality and poverty.

The heartbreaks, bloody conflicts, betrayals, thievery and greed of more than 50 years of independence in most of the rest of the continent – which have bred a deep cynicism towards the state as benefactor – have not yet set in in South Africa. And though it is tarnished, the ruling ANC is still loved by many. Its share of the vote is shrinking, but it doesn’t have to win power the old-fashioned way, by stealing votes … yet.

If the end of apartheid was when South Africa became independent, then it’s barely 20 years. The politics of “redress”, the expectation that what East Africans call matunda ya uhuru – the passion fruit of independence – will be given to all, is still pretty high. This is probably why South Africans strike so much. They expect concessions from the state and companies, and sometimes they get them.

Lacking the sourness of spirit you find elsewhere in Africa, the debate about how the country can move forward and include more of its people in its prosperity is largely uncontested. The black people, mostly, but also coloured people and Indians, got a raw deal during apartheid, so it’s only fair to use politics to allocate opportunities.

You can’t, especially if you’re a white South African (understandably), tell the poor they should work hard – or, as a hard-nosed Kenyan politician would, that they are poor partly because they are lazy. That would be a kiss of death. But it means that the kind of radical, often uncomfortable, thinking required to move the country in new directions does not happen.

Also, South Africans have not yet had to make the kind of bargain some other African countries have: to accept so-called “development autocrats”, giving up political freedoms to escape famine and national decay.

South Africans have not had to endure venal civil leaders only because a military dictator is worse.

South Africans want a country that is free, rich and fairly equal. A Mauritius or Botswana might achieve that, but no country in Africa with a population of more than five million, a land size similar to South Africa’s and its cultural diversity has ever achieved it.

It’s a tall order, but if South Africa were to achieve it then, among other rewards, Africa would forgive it for the shame of being the only World Cup host nation to fail to advance beyond the first round, in 2010. And that was after it made the continent proud by being the first African country to host the event – and did a pretty good job of it, too.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is the editor of Mail & Guardian Africa, which is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @cobbo3.

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