South Africa is a Continent

Jacob Zuma says out loud what most South Africans believe about themselves: South Africa isn’t in Africa. It’s somewhere else. Somewhere better.

Chileka Road in Blantyre, Malawi (Nchenga, via Flickr CC).

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.

Further Reading

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The meanings of Heath Streak

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The magic man

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How to think about colonialism

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More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.