It is a very sad day in the life of Africans when those who are tasked with the responsibility of championing unity undermine it. This morning was saddening for the delegation of South Africa that is attending the Land and Agrarian Reform Conference taking place in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, a delegation that I am part of. This morning, the facilitator of the conference hosted by the Southern Africa Development Community Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, comrade Glenn Farred, requested all South Africans to apologise to our Malawian colleagues (and indeed all Africans present here) for the statements made by the president in which he perpetuates South African exceptionalism at the expense of Malawians.
Many of us found ourselves conflicted. On the one hand we raised the argument that it is not fair that we should be subjected to apologising for a crime we did not commit. But on the other hand we were faced with a situation where other delegates from across the region were shocked and angered by the assertions made by our president and we knew that the responsibility of fostering unity at all costs was greater than that of being defensive. So amid the potential for a heated debate (which comrade Glenn thankfully prevented) we apologised and continued with the morning’s sessions. However it is clear that there is still tension in the air that must be cleared and I want to attempt to provide my own analysis of the president’s statements.
The problem with the statements is not whether they are factual. The reality of the situation is that the road infrastructure in Malawi and indeed, in most parts of the African continent including some parts of South Africa, is poor. Another reality is that in many of these countries resources were channelled towards infrastructure development post-independence, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. Development aid (aid given by developed countries to support development in general, which can be economic development or social development in developing countries, is distinguished from humanitarian aid as being aimed at alleviating poverty in the long term, rather than alleviating suffering in the short term) was a central feature in Malawi’s post-independence economic restructuring. The impact of aid in Malawi has been rather disastrous, largely because it weakened the policy capacity of the country. Despite the injection of this aid, infrastructure in Malawi (and in many other countries not only in Africa but in the entire developing world) remains underdeveloped and this question does beg critical analysis. This analysis, however, must not be divorced from the fundamental critique of foreign aid (but this is a debate for another day).
The problem with the president’s statements is the failure to employ proper tools of analysis to this complex situation. This results in the perpetuation of a problematic phenomenon of South African exceptionalism, which undermines the quest for African unity and regional integration. But secondly, the president failed to take into consideration the prevailing socio-political climate in which these statements are uttered. It was not so long ago that South Africa underwent a dark period of Afro-phobic violence in which African nationals were brutally killed. This climate of intolerance continues to fester even today, particularly in informal settlements where unemployment, poverty and disease are rife. Furthermore the questionable involvement of our army in the Central African Republic, the role of South African capital in conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo and many other examples give credibility to the argument that South Africa is the new imperialist on the continent. Therefore the president’s statements exacerbate an already volatile socio-political climate and give legitimacy to the popular argument that our country regards itself as superior to all others on the continent. This was reiterated by one of the delegates here, comrade Edward Chileka-Banda, the national coordinator of the Malawi Youth Consultative Forum, who had this to say about the president’s statements:
“I feel it should be made clear that South Africa’s big brother role contributes to underdevelopment of other countries like Malawi. Since the colonial period, Malawi has provided a lot of labour and market for South African goods and products and it is no secret that Malawians have contributed to the development of South Africa. Let President Zuma think about how poor countries like Malawi can benefit from SA in return.”
The president’s statements also fail to inspire confidence in the possibility of us achieving regional integration and continental unity. The argument that we must “not think like Africans” projects South Africa as a country outside the continent, as if we are not one with other Africans. It is a supremacist position and one that is in fact born out of colonised logic because it seeks to suggest that Africans lack the capacity to think in terms of development, that our people are content with the nervous conditions of their existence. This is what our colonisers say about us: they say we are uncivilised.
Former president Thabo Mbeki championed the struggle for an African Renaissance agenda, which is fundamentally about the decolonisation of African people, at whose heart lays unity. We ought to be continuing where he left off, not assuming a parental role that places South Africa on a pedestal at the expense of other countries. We must not celebrate our own better development; rather, we must strive for the development of the entire continent. As another delegate, comrade Winston Fulu, member of the National Smallholder Farmer’s Association of Malawi, points out:
“The comparison done by your first citizen is not African. If your neighbour is poor, it is not in our tradition to remind them now and then about their disadvantaged position.”
In my capacity as the AU African Youth Charter Ambassador for the SADC region and as an African, I say to the youth in Africa: Our struggles are common. Our continent is one. And we, its people, are one!