By Neil Achary
Guy Scott, who is vice-president of Zambia and, incidentally, a white Zambian, has ruffled a few feathers by saying that he hates South Africa. In an interview with The Guardian, although he seemed to imply that he likes South Africans on an individual basis, he dislikes South Africa for the same reason that Latin American nations dislike the United States, our country is too “big” and “unsubtle”, according to Scott.
Some might say that Scott is just jealous. I have always thought that we South Africans are a likeable people, and our country is generally quite welcoming to visitors. Growing up in the UK, I have met many different people from many countries, including Zambia, and not one of them has said that they hate South Africa when I tell them where I am from. There may be banter about the Springboks, our cricket team, Jacob Zuma, or even my accent. When I read what Scott said, it reminded me of some of the chitchat I hear going on between decent-minded Australians and New Zealanders, or Americans and Canadians, or even the English and the Scots. It is merely friendly rivalry between people of one country, and people from its smaller, more in-the-background neighbour. I would not be surprised if even Zimbabweans, both white and black, feel the same way about us. Therefore, it could just be a case of jealousy between countries with a shared history of colonialism.
Digging further, we can gather that Scott believes that South Africa, because of its economic size and influence, has developed a superior attitude towards the rest of Africa. Given that South Africa occupies a number of international positions, such as in the G20 and Brics, it is easy to see why Scott could feel this way. As the only African nation on these bodies, there might be a feeling that South Africa should be articulating the African agenda on behalf of the continent, but is not doing so. Zuma unfortunately does not have the diplomatic credentials of Thabo Mbeki, so South Africa’s foreign policy has been inconsistent and confused at times. Take South Africa’s stance on Libya. South Africa voted in favour of implementing a UN no-fly zone, but some time later, changed its position and began to join other countries in criticising Nato intervention. Some people may rightly criticise foreign-policy decisions during the Mbeki era, but one thing you cannot fault them for is inconsistency. Then, there are recent reports that while South African banks and businesses are setting up shop in Nigeria, Nigerian companies have struggled to gain a foothold in South Africa. Is it that we are happy to do business in Africa as long as they do not try to take away our local business?
South Africa is in an enviable position, as many investors see it as a gateway into Africa. This is one reason why South Africa was invited to join the Brics grouping. However, it is easy to get fatheaded in such positions, and perhaps Scott’s beef with South Africa is that our diplomats are getting a bit ahead of themselves with regard to South Africa’s position in world politics. South Africa is absolutely not an emerging superpower — it does not have the economic growth levels necessary, and the military capabilities of our armed forces leave much to be desired. However, South Africa does have this position as a foothold for business in Africa, which means that any economic success is linked with that of the continent. As the saying goes, “with great power, comes great responsibility”.
Reflecting on Scott’s comments, there is a clear bemoaning of the apparent lack of diplomatic style when it comes to South Africa dealing with its neighbours. Our government should not behave as if we are better than our friends on the African continent. I think it could do better to put forward the African agenda. And in attempting to do its best for its citizens, should also aim to benefit our neighbours on the international stage. After all, South Africa is literally joined at the hip to the rest of Africa. If South Africa fails, then Africa fails and the same is true the other way round as well.
Neil Achary is a civil servant and has a master’s degree in African studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.