When South Africa finally freed itself from the shackles of apartheid, it took not only Africa, but the world by storm. The rainbow nation seemed to do everything better and became the de facto leader not only of Africa but the emerging world. But, as Carlos Lopes argues, today, its influence has shrunk to virtually zero. Can it rediscover itself?
Tourist-savvy Cape Town is six months from commissioning its already celebrated-inanticipation Museum of Contemporary Art, in the sophisticated Waterfront area. It will be the largest such museum in Africa.
If you land at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, you are most likely to notice the billboards celebrating Standard Bank as the largest bank on the continent. Until three years ago any South African was also proud to mention that they had the largest and most industrialised African economy, until Nigeria snatched, it seems just temporarily, at least one of those titles.
Across the continent, the end of apartheid and the establishment of a new democratic South Africa in 1994, produced such joy that all could accept some excess on the part of the new brothers and sisters when it came to boasting about their size and importance. After all, who could argue against Mandela being the greatest? That became fact, not only for Africa, but for the rest of the world as well. His leadership was so unique that it is still difficult to live without his presence.
Many symbolic reasons had made the role of a new South Africa expected and even long-awaited. It was no surprise that the continental institutions and agencies became more visible and recognised thanks to South Africa.
South Africa was key in shaping the establishment of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) trade, investment and dialogue triumvirate; this led to the powerful Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping comprising 43% of the world’s population, over 30% of global GDP and over 17% of world trade. BRICS evolved out of a determination by two like-minded members of the UN Security Council (China and Russia) wanting to consolidate a new non-Western-led interest group.
The special relationship between Africa and China has been largely refined over time by the need to adjust to an agenda that would include South Africa, Africa’s most integrated economy, at a global scale. The injection of $6bn into Standard Bank remains one of the single largest Chinese investments in the world. Russia’s constant push for a nuclear deal is another concrete proof of a geo-strategic, if not large commercial interest, in South Africa.
South Africa’s international clout
South Africa’s economic influence over the continent expanded quickly from the late 1990s on. Major South African companies found a ready market for their agricultural products, their manufactures, their first-class telecoms systems, their transport and logistics provisions, their banking and financial services and their sophisticated retail franchises and department stores, serving the rising middle-class tide in Africa north of the Limpopo.
The country’s wide diversity of media, the professionalism of its journalists and editors and its fierce independence became the envy of the developing world.
With its First World infrastructure and communications, a developed judiciary and a wealth of professional experts at hand, South Africa became the entry point into the rest of the continent for a torrent of global multinationals and investors. It was certainly the place to be.
The country also became the continental centre for international gatherings, conventions and conferences. With first-class hotels, conference facilities, world-class restaurants and shopping opportunities, delegates who had been reluctant to travel “to Africa” now came flocking in – gradually opening up other “acceptable” venues further north.
The 2010 World Cup crowned this international acceptance. That the world’s premier sporting event, watched by billions across the globe, was taking place in an African country became a source of pride to Africans everywhere. The continent was no longer in the global backwaters but could deliver against the best the world had to offer.
When the former leader of Libya, Muammar Gadhafi, tried to locate the newly formed African Union to his home town of Sirte, accompanied by the establishment of the United States of Africa, it was South African President Thabo Mbeki, more than the other important AU midwife, who stood up and said “No!”.
The G7/8 acknowledged the power of this influential player and so did many other world groupings, including the G20. South Africa was ever present in the international fora, where its contributions were taken seriously and it was easily recognised as the voice of Africa.
South Africa’s international clout did not come only because it was an economic powerhouse, but perhaps more because it was prepared to send peacekeepers, defend an advanced governance system and shape international debates without pulling its punches.
But that was then – when South Africa stood tall not only in Africa but among the more advanced emerging nations. Sad to say, things have gradually gone downhill since that golden period.
Last year, when African Union leaders decided to reform the organisation root and branch, to prepare it for a turbulent future, they looked almost naturally, to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the leaders of other smaller nations for guidance – rather than South Africa.
One can celebrate this wonderful manifestation of a more balanced rapport amongst African leaders; or one can wonder whether the shine of “Proudly South African” is starting to fade.
The shrinking of South African economic growth to zero has contributed a great deal of this new perception. Other developments, such as South African Airways pulling out from routes they helped mature and being surpassed by carriers like Ethiopian Airlines; industrialisation accelerating in many African countries, against the contraction of manufacturing value addition in South Africa; IT innovation in Kenya surpassing that of South Africa’s; the best smart technological solutions occurring in Rwanda; the highest reduction of inequality happening in Namibia; and booming infrastructure in countries like Angola, Algeria or Morocco, are all signs that the rest of Africa is progressing rapidly while South Africa is at best standing still, at worst, regressing.
African nations are now taking their development cues from African nations other than South Africa. They are noticing and want to replicate the successes of such countries. They want to know how Ethiopia has multiplied manifold its manufactured goods exports, how Djibouti attracts so many foreign militaries to build bases, or how Côte d’Ivoire is getting close to double-digit growth in just a few years.
When Africans hear that Barclays is abandoning Africa and ABSA, that the rating agencies have downgraded South Africa’s sovereign debt to junk status or that the country is making deals with major economic powers such as the European Union, the UK or even China on its own behalf rather than as part of the rest of Africa, there is a feeling that something has been dramatically changing.
In continental terms, the leadership of the “South Africa brothers” does not carry the same weight as before. To make matters worse, Africa’s other two biggest economies – Nigeria and Egypt – are not helping either. It is therefore no surprise that this is reflected in the slowness of the Continental Free Trade Area negotiations, the necessary peace and security reforms or the rising tensions in the Southern African Customs Union’s revenue scheme.
South Africa still has the best ecosystem to boost Africa’s industrialisation, expand modernised services and quality higher education and innovation. Yet in each one of these areas, instead of leading, it is retracting. The country is currently engulfed in internal “sorting out” of policy choices and personality battles.
This is not what Africa wants; it is desperate to get more from their highly modernised neighbour; it wants South Africa to set the tone.
The images of Nigerians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans or Somalis being dragged through the streets of Johannesburg or Durban, sometimes beaten to death by xenophobic mobs, are not only distressing but deeply disturbing.
This, counterpoised against the fact that small African countries, with far less resources, such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, Ghana or Benin, feel confident enough to completely liberalise movement for Africans, is striking.
Serious governance challenges and high-profile corruption cases in South Africa compound the impression of a serious setback. It contributes to global perceptions of an Africa that is becoming adrift. We all deserve better, and for that we need South Africa to rediscover itself, become a cheetah – move fast and lead.
We are waiting for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow nation.