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Does Africa Matter Enough to Africa?

The title of a recent research report by Standard Bank economists is provocative: "Does Africa Matter Enough to Africa?" It is about missed opportunities and untapped potential, but the debates about it are 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 patronizing attitude of South Africa Inc, which is predominantly white has surfaced. There is very little discussion of 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 disconnect between the SA media (including electronic) and its counterparts in the rest of Africa. The SA media frequently publishes opinion pieces, columns and news articles drawn from their counterparts in the UK 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, the This Day in Nigeria or The Cameroon Tribune.

 

As a result, the debates happening in the rest of our continent do not reach us as well as those that happen even in merely prominent families in the West. Gauteng's major talk radio has a feature on the UK and the US every morning on week days rendered by prominent UK and American journalist, 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 SA mainstream media from the continent in which SA finds itself as that is a subject for another day, but it is to say that some important debates on the Standard Bank's report title 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 if Africa matters enough to South Africa. It is whether South Africa can stand up and lambast Africa for failure to take care of its interests, when besides government and elements of progressive civil society, there is generally lack of connection with the mother continent amongst South Africans. This dilemma is even tougher for SA big business for while it has worked hard to acquire business in Africa, but it has not suggested that it is concerned about public goods, i.e. building a prosperous Africa by lifting the lives of Africans from abject poverty.

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

The less said about the mainstream South African civil society including what is supposed to be politically-conscious 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 than we. There is a lot for us to learn, but too often we go out on a civilizing mission to transfer SA lessons to what we assume to be a tabula rasa.

In this context, some in poor black communities see African nationals that have immigrated to South Africa, legally or illegally, as a 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 expect them to work even harder than their former employees, the natives from townships that were designed to be labour reserves for white capital.

In this sense, Africa is in many ways an object of supremacist and patronizing attitude by elements of the SA 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 be begin with the Africanisation of South Africa business and civil society.

A version of this think piece was recently published in The Witness newspaper.

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