Africa does matter

2011-07-19 00:00

THE title of a recent research report by Standard Bank economists is provocative: "Does Africa matter enough to Africa? "The report is about missed opportunities and untapped potential, but the debates about it are also about what Standard Bank represents in the minds of critics. And this is very important.

In many media spaces, including blogs, this concern about the patronising attitude of South Africa Inc, which is predominantly white, has surfaced. There is very little discussion about the contents of the report. This, too, is important as how we are perceived has a bearing on how our admonition or advice is received.

Very little of this discussion has reached the South African media. I suspect this is to do with a general disconnection between the South African media (including electronic media) and their counterparts in the rest of Africa. The South African media frequently publishes opinion pieces, columns and news articles drawn from their counterparts in the United Kingdom and other parts of the Western world. South Africa is assumed to be part of this world. I have yet to see any article borrowed from the Daily Nation in Kenya, This Day in Nigeria or the Cameroon Tribune.

As a result, the debates happening on the rest of our continent do not reach us as effectively as those that happen even in merely prominent families in the West. Gauteng's major talk radio has a feature on the United Kingdom and the United States every weekday morning rendered by prominent English and American journalists, but a round-up on Africa is done by a Pretoria-based South African journalist.

I do not intend to comment on the dislocation of the South African mainstream media from the continent as that is a subject for another day, except to say that some important debates on the question posed by the Standard Bank's report will not help us South Africans because we are cut off from the continental discourses, and, worse, on our own we are not discussing the report at all.

This itself raises the question of whether Africa matters enough to South Africa. It is whether South Africa can stand up and lambast Africa for failure to take care of its own interests, when, besides government and elements of progressive civil society, there is generally a lack of connection with the mother continent among South Africans. This dilemma is even tougher for South African big business for while it has worked hard to acquire business in Africa, but it has not shown that it is concerned with the public good, i.e. building a prosperous Africa by lifting the lives of Africans from abject poverty.

Of course, no business is run on altruistic motives. Shareholders, those profit-crazy beings, want nothing but increased profits to get higher share divi­dends. But business ought to be a good corporate citizen too because profit making is made a lot more tricky and unsustainable by a climate of poor governance, weak social justice, high inequality and floundering economic policies. To what extent then does South African business contribute to enriching debates and policy literacy among populations of countries it invests in to ensure stable and prosperous countries?

The less said about mainstream South African civil society, including what are supposed to be politically conscious non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the better. We in the NGO sector have remained insular, unable to reach out to our counterparts in the rest of Africa, many of whom have greater insights into what would make a successful Africa. There is a lot for us to learn, but too often we go out on a civilising mission to transfer South African lessons to what we assume to be a tabula rasa.

In this context, some in poor black communities see African nationals who have immigrated to South Africa, legally or illegally, as the source of all their social ills. The fundamental structural distortions that perpetuate racialised economic inequalities are the making of white minority colonial and later apartheid governments, but the black poor blame their condition on African migrants.

It is in the same context as well that some in white business have come to see African migrants as the cheapest way of increasing profits by paying them slave wages and expecting them to work even harder than their former employees, the natives from the townships that were designed to be labour reserves for white capital.

In this sense, Africa is in many ways an object of supremacist and patronising attitudes by elements of the South African elite and citizenry. This is so in spite of an enlightened foreign policy that says South Africa's success is inextricably linked to Africa's prosperity. Hence, the African renaissance, the light that guides our foreign policy, needs to begin with the Africanisation of South African business and civil society.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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