SA 'has lost its leadership role on the African continent'

2016-05-30 12:15
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Cape Town - South African journalist Liesl Louw-Vaudran has spent years reporting on Africa. She recently launched her entrancing book; South Africa in Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist?

The book provokes mixed emotions as it brings into focus fascinating views regarding the country today versus a newly-democratic South Africa - in relation to the rest of the continent.  

News24 speaks to Louw-Vaudran 

News24: South Africa in Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist? That is the title of your book and it comes as a question. Who are you directing this question to and what does it mean?

The book examines South Africa's role in Africa since the end of apartheid. The title refers to the question I try to answer in the book: has South Africa played a positive role as a superpower or has it imposed itself on the continent in an arrogant and neocolonialist way? 

News24: So in a nutshell, how best can you describe your book?

My book tells the story of South Africa's foray into the rest of Africa after apartheid from a government and a business point of view. It looks at how the rest of Africa perceives South Africa and how the xenophobic violence of 2008 and 2015 impacted on this relationship. The book responds to the allegations that South Africans are 'neocolonialists'.

News24: In your introduction, you write about your trip to Niger in 2004 where you met a Tuareg, who spoke about a South African who had been in the west African country to put up a cellphone tower in the previous week. You then say "I couldn't believe what I was hearing". What did this tell you about the continent at that particular time?

At the time there were few South Africans travelling and working throughout the continent. That's why I was so surprised that there had been South Africans working in this remote part of Niger. Sanctions were only lifted against South Africa in 1994 and business people only really started investing and looking for opportunities by the early 2000s. 

News24: As a journalist who has spent at least 20 years reporting on Africa and travelling with South African heads of state and business leaders, what's your perception about the relationship that exists between SA and other African countries?

My perception is that South Africans generally have very little insight into how they are viewed by the rest of Africa. South Africans believe that South Africa is by far the most developed, sophisticated economy on the continent and therefore has a natural leadership role in Africa. That is far from the truth.

News24: You mention towards the end of the book that South Africa's status as a superpower in Africa is under threat, and its relations with the rest of Africa are at a low point. What could be causing this?

South Africa has lost a lot of its hard power and its soft power in Africa. It no longer has the military capacity to intervene in conflicts as during the Mbeki-era and it is not leading by example as a model of democracy and good governance.

News24: You also mention that the country's role in Africa in the past two decades has "indeed changed", adding that it is a "far cry from the days of the visionary Nelson Mandela". What would you say went wrong and can the mistakes be rectified?

As mentioned above, South Africa has lost its leadership role because to lead, you must lead by example. Mandela had the admiration of the world and former president Thabo Mbeki had a vision of how to transform the entire continent – his African Renaissance project.

There is little of that today. South Africa can do a lot to rectify this situation: strategic co-operation with other lead nations on the continent and stronger co-operation between business, government and civil society can, for example, go a long way to improve South Africa's status on the continent.  

News24: You also touch on issues regarding arrogance, racism and ignorance – saying these are hampering South Africa's future engagement with the rest of the country. Just how important are these issues to Africa?

These are extremely important. South Africans are often ignorant about what happens in the rest of Africa but are happy to do business or go on holiday in other African countries.

News24: Comparing it with other countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt and Algeria – which have been identified as some of the major role players on the continent, where do you see South Africa in the next 10 years?

In my book I refer to a study done by the Institute for Security Studies' Futures division that looked at the future status of Africa's big powers.

The prediction is that only Nigeria will over the long term emerge as a global superpower. Many factors play a role, however, and none of us have a crystal ball to see the future. The drop in oil prices, for example, has thrown many of these predictions off course.

News24: And looking at these countries, do you think South Africa should be the only country to represent Africa in international forums such as the G20 and BRICS?

These global institutions are under constant threat because of the changing economic and political situation worldwide. For example, Brazil has lost a lot of its appeal in the last few years and so other South American countries could also want to question Brazil's position in BRICS.

These alternative structures were created because of the lack of reform in the United Nations Security Council – with only the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China as permanent members. This has to change and then the real battle will be fought over who should represent Africa on the world stage. South Africa will certainly be one of the top two or three.   

News24: Tell us a bit about yourself and your work as an Africa news correspondent and editor.

I work mainly as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), focusing on the African Union and on African peace and security issues. I also write reports and analyses on a freelance basis for newspapers such as the Mail & Guardian and Rapport.

Before joining the ISS in 2008, I reported from around the continent and visited 22 African countries – some more often than others. I was also based in Dakar, Senegal, for three years and started tracking the story of South Africa's role in Africa from there.

News24: What are some of the biggest events you have covered over the years, including those that have perhaps put your life at risk?

I have covered many hotly contested elections around the continent, which are always big events, but only in Cote d'Ivoire was I really in some danger because of the volatile situation. 

The biggest event I've ever reported on is something I realise very few South Africans – and few people worldwide – really know about.

In September 2002 more than 2000 people died when a ferry overturned transporting people from the Casamance coast of Senegal to the capital Dakar. This was the saddest event I ever experienced as a journalist and it showed me how the poorest people suffer from the corruption and breakdown of law and order at the highest level of state.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  thabo mbeki  |  sa  |  africa

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