South Africa’s a Continent
T.O. Molefe | October 24th, 2013


South African president Jacob Zuma’s visit to Malawi in August appears to have renewed his appreciation for the quality of the roads network in Gauteng, South Africa’s smallest yet wealthiest province. Speaking at a listening session in the lead up to the launch of the ANC’s manifesto for next year’s election, Zuma, in his capacity as the party’s president, urged Gauteng residents to be responsible and to take pride in the quality of the province’s highways. He said it was only fair that Gauteng residents pay the electronic tolls (e-tolls) to use the provinces recently upgraded highways instead of threatening to boycott the system when it goes live in a few weeks.

To drive his point home, Zuma said in a series of off-the-cuff remarks, “We can’t think like Africans in Africa, generally. We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi.”

Predictably, Zuma’s political opponents are drawing all the mileage they can from the remarks, both for their potential to cause a diplomatic imbroglio with Malawi and to drive a wedge between the ANC and its voter base angered and opposed to e-tolls. Zuma’s spokesman and the ANC tried to spin the remarks as having been taken out of context, but they got Africa-checked. And South Africans have reflexively pilloried Zuma for expressing what’s a commonly held sentiment here: South Africa isn’t in Africa. It’s somewhere else. Somewhere better.

A decade ago it became trendy for South African businesses to say, mimicking their European counterparts, that they’re expanding “into Africa” and to have divisions dedicated to businesses Africa.

Satellite television provider Multichoice, owned by the Naspers conglomerate, has a subsidiary named Multichoice Africa, which, from the profile on its website, “provides multi-channel pay television and subscriber management services in 48 countries in sub-Sahara Africa and the adjacent Indian Ocean islands.”

South Africa, which is ring-fenced from the company’s Africa business, isn’t counted in these 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Standard Bank, one of the country’s largest and oldest banks said, after winning Global Finance magazine’s best foreign exchange provider in Africa award for 2013: “Being successful in providing foreign exchange services requires so much more than an intention to expand into Africa. Standard Bank is delivering successfully because the bank has invested not only funds, but many years in steadily building our African presence and capabilities.”

Where the bank thought it’d been operating until expanding into Africa is anyone’s guess, but it sure as hell wasn’t in Africa.

Further on: “Standard Bank Group is not only the leading foreign exchange provider in its home market of South Africa…it also has a network that spans 18 countries in Africa and 13 countries outside of Africa.”

There you have the delineation: South Africa, Africa and outside of Africa.

We understand what they’re trying to do and say, but it’s coming across as though they believe South Africa isn’t part of the African continent. As one of the biggest producers of culture in South Africa, corporate South African perspectives have probably bled and dovetailed into how South Africans generally view their place in Africa.

As AfriPOP editor Phiona Okumu wrote last year, “Mzansi’s economic and, it seems, cultural dominion affords its citizens a similarly lazy and arrogant outlook (as Americans). When they describe someone’s origins as “from Africa” they mean a land far away, homogenised into one country by untold suffering.”

In short, Zuma hasn’t said anything South Africans didn’t already believe about themselves and their country.

Receiving significantly lesser attention is Zuma’s remark that Gauteng can’t remain under-developed like Rustenburg, the closest town to Marikana, where the police last year gunned down striking miners in what’s looking increasingly like a pre-mediated act. It was a particularly callous remark, considering a recent report from the Bench Marks Foundation that said the government’s failure to hold Lonmin to account for the shifting goals in the mine’s social development reports was a contributing factor to the unrest across Rustenburg’s platinum belt and the mining sector in general.

But the issues surrounding the Marikana massacre and underdeveloped mining communities don’t fit in the narrative of South African exceptionalism, so it seems that South Africans think it’s better not to call too much attention to them.

UPDATE: Silicon Valley and its Awkward Relationship with "Africa"
Heaps of Scrap for Africa

11 thoughts on “South Africa’s a Continent

  1. Having witnessed this attitude in SA I had often wondered whether it was a throw back from the British colonisation, given that Brits invariably refer to travelling to Europe to see the Europeans.

  2. I trust the racism in Zuma’s comment has not gone entirely unnoticed. Having an African president verbalise such eurocentric sentiments should spark an outrage. Or is ignorance the winner here?

  3. The first joke I heard on my first trip to SA (1989) was a Capetonian telling me that he was flying to Jo’burg the next day — “going to Africa, we call it.”

  4. Brilliant insight and so true – i always thought we lived in Africa and President Joyce Banda is a leader of note – with great respect Mr. Molefe – i will certainly follow you namaste nikki

  5. Interesting article – but your argument doesn’t really follow. So you say that many South Africans believe in “SA exceptionalism” (probably true), but then how then can you claim that these beliefs are why people are so upset with Zuma for the Malawi comment? If people really believed in SA exceptionalism they would be upset with the Rustenburg comment, not the Malawi one

  6. A very well-written and insightful article. Zuma’s comments were an illumination of the nation’s sentiments. If there’s anything all South Africans – black, white, rich, poor – have in common is this exceptionalist attitude towards Africa. When criticisms of our country and the government arise, they are swiftly followed by the tell-tale remark, “well, at least we’re better than the rest of Africa.” We are Africans of convenience. We were all too happy to don the colours of Ghana’s flag when they made it to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup (and demonise Luis Suarez of course) but when an unsavoury remark is made on Africa, we’re very quick to distance ourselves from the continent and claim, “yes, but South Africa’s different” or “we’re better than the rest of Africa.” Because despite being on the continent geographically, we do not think ourselves part of it. Also, coverage of African affairs on South African news outlets is so overwhelmingly poor. We somehow feel a closer connection to the affairs of Britain than we do those of Cameroon or Burkina Faso for example. Many African states opened their gates to exiled leaders of the struggle, educated and raised their children yet we cannot even pay them the slightest bit of respect and think of ourselves as our fellow brothers and sisters. Absolutely pathetic.

    • It seems that the present generation of South Africans are more of a product of apartheid than their predecessors; whereas previous leaders gained experiences whilst abroad in exile, the latest generation seem more parochial. How many South Africans under 40 have visited another African country?

      > jared purdy:

      True indeed; the Arabs north of the Sahara and the Europeans south of the Limpopo have been successful in “de-Africanising these regions”. One would think that the Pyramids were built by traders from the House of Saud…

  7. Using corporate South Africa’s perspectives (Standard Bank, Multichoice) as a measure for popular South African views about how they relate to the rest of Africa is very narrow. It was the outcry from ordinary South African citizens on social media that made this a story and forced the apology. Yes there are many problems about South Africa/Africa perceptions and self perceptions, but if anything, this incident is a measure of how much as changed. Both Zuma’s comments on the one hand and the public response on the other should be acknowledged being an equally valid reflection of where things stand.

    • I don’t see how it is narrow because the author is not only using corporate South Africa’s interests as a means of measuring sentiments held towards Africa but he is merely illustrating how social attitudes and perceptions have slowly crept into South Africa’s economic sector so to speak. The management, aims and strategies of many South African corporations are meant to reflect the South African mind-set if you like, and that mind-set, as the author has correctly pointed out, seems to be apathetic and supercilious towards the rest of Africa. Yes, the South African media and public by-and-large condemned Zuma for his statement but that is because drawing attention to the inconsistencies or idiocies of the Zuma administration is many a South African’s favourite pastime. We almost look forward to every speech he makes so that it can be dissected to reveal things about the man we believe and sometimes want to believe are true – namely that he’s ignorant, dumb, incompetent and corrupt. I’m not suggesting that the South African media or public simply lambaste Zuma for the sake of it, but it’s erroneous to separate his sentiments from the public’s. A lot of South Africans revel in being “Africa’s Europe”. Our condescending and degrading image of other African nationals is evident in our treatment of so-called foreigners and the constant xenophobia to which they are subjected. Before we place the blame of Zuma alone, let’s truthfully evaluate where we stand as country in relation to our continent. In doing so, we will find that our sentiments are not too different from the President’s.

  8. Or like Norway, towards EU. Or Switzerland. Most Arab nations, to their neighbours. See Morocco/Algeria, which is really strange since they are the same arabs/berbers.
    Even in Sweden, we think Sweden / EU / non-EU / non-Europe.
    Norway is a very special case.
    Perhaps it is the normalcy? Being exceptionalist, at least part of the time? Perhaps it is part of what keeps us united, like soccer? You do like soccer, don’t you?

    You go to “that other place”, see things you disapprove of. You say “this can’t be right?!”

    This racism bullshit innuendo is really going nowhere..
    Hard to move forward when you are feeling offended most of the time.
    So – get over it. Take a deep breath, and get over it.
    Zuma and ANC is a real problem, but it is for south africans to deal with. Always sad to see the wrong winning the election, but that does happen. And it could be a whole lot worse, like Libya.

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