My first major story as a foreign correspondent was Egypt’s Arab Spring. I arrived in Tahrir Square in Cairo early on 2 February 2011, which is known now as “the day the tide turned”; the day the hitherto peaceful protests turned violent as government thugs laid siege to the square. As afternoon turned to dusk, molotov cocktails arced across the makeshift frontlines and I decided that this was going beyond my risk threshold.
I slipped out through a narrow alley and somehow found a taxi. But there was still another hurdle to navigate: the police checkpoints that had been set up to prevent protesters from fleeing.
It was a bad time to be a journalist. On that very night, one journalist was punched in the face, while another was stabbed in the leg by supporters of the regime. Several were arrested by the police. I was scared.
We drove up to a checkpoint. I was interrogated for several minutes, and the questions got hostile very quickly. A policeman took my camera and looked through the photographs, demanding to know whether I was a spy. And then he asked for my passport.
“Ganoob Afrikia!” he said, his tone softening immediately. South Africa! “Bafana Bafana. Nelson Mandela.” He gave me a broad, incongruous smile. “Hosni Mubarak and Nelson Mandela, like brothers. South Africa is a friend for Egypt.” With that, he handed back my camera and passport and waved me on my way.
That day, being South African spared me from an extended stay inside an Egyptian jail, and possibly worse.
As I travelled further around the continent, my nationality always counted in my favour. There was an extraordinary amount of goodwill towards South Africa, which was seen as a beacon of prosperity and good governance. Moreover, Africans from every corner of the continent felt a deep affinity with the country, with many having supported its struggle against apartheid in ways both small and large. South Africa’s success was Africa’s success too.
Slowly, however, these positive perceptions began to change as the continent became more familiar with us. Now, South Africans are increasingly greeted with suspicion and hostility.
There are three main reasons why.
The first is how South African multinationals have ruthlessly expanded into new markets, sometimes using their financial clout to wipe out local operations. On the one hand, this brought supermarkets and cellphone operators and banks into countries that needed them; on the other hand, all the profits were being siphoned into an already-bloated JSE. The fact that the boards and the middle management of these corporations were and remain overwhelmingly pale is not lost on anyone.
The second is the shift in South African foreign policy, which went from Nelson Mandela’s human rights rhetoric and Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech to Jacob Zuma’s bruising battle to appoint his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as boss of the African Union Commission. To casual observers, it mattered not that Dlamini-Zuma is a highly qualified politician in her own right: her imposition on the AU was seen as brazen act of nepotism, and it was achieved by bullying and buying support from poorer and less powerful African countries. South Africa was no longer leading the African renaissance, but had turned into an ugly superpower directing its middle finger at the rest of the continent. Zuma got what he wanted, but it came at great cost to South Africa’s continental standing and left us with few friends.
The third, and by far the most significant, are the repeated bouts of extreme violence directed at Africans living in South Africa. These days, when I get into a taxi in Lagos, or Addis Ababa, or Blantyre, or Hargeisa, the first question I get asked is: “Where are you from?” The second question is: “Why do you hate us?” The news of attacks on foreigners in South Africa will spread along migrant routes even before it appears on news sites. Every time a Zimbabwean is assaulted in central Johannesburg, or a Somali-owned shop is looted in Tembisa, or a senior government official bemoans the “foreign criminals” that are taking everyone else’s jobs, the shock reverberates across borders — through WhatsApp groups and social media and long-distance phone calls — and leaves scars that may never disappear.
The current crisis brings together all three of these factors in sharp, bitter relief. There are foreigners being killed and attacked across Gauteng. There are reprisals in Nigeria aimed at Shoprite stores, which are seen as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with South Africa’s engagement with the continent. And African governments — usually so slow to condemn the electoral fraud or human rights abuses of their counterparts — have not been shy to criticise South Africa, including a stinging rebuke from the new chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat.
Not too long ago, South Africa was beloved by the rest of Africa. Now we are reviled — and we have only ourselves to blame.