Sefiso Hlongwane
Sefiso Hlongwane

Whose South Africa is it anyway?

“All those who live in it”? Well, at least according to the Freedom Charter. Cute, don’t you think? Ah, reminds me of when I moved out of my parents’ home to pursue “first-time renting”. Though I snagged a tight-spaced bachelor unit, next door to a Celine Dion friend, who often blasted her music into the wee hours of the morning, it was all worth it and liberating because I finally had a place of my own … one that belonged to me (despite the little fact that it was Mom and Dad who were responsible for shelling out their pretty pennies on rent, utilities and furniture).

Just like the Freedom Charter, the body corporate ensured that the place was mine, simply because I dwelled there. Did that mean I was entirely free to do anything I wanted with or in the flat? Well, maybe if I did not have to constantly seek permission from or report to either my folks, the security guards, Janet (who was the caretaker), the landlord and of course, the big bosses — the body corporate — it would not have been profoundly naive to think the newly-found pad was really mine. So l’d rather put it like this: I just happened to have occupied a space that already had “owners” — those who called the shots.

So again, whose South Africa is it? Or rather, who serves as the parents, the caretaker, security guards, landlord and body corporate of our beloved rainbow nation?

China takes on SA (and the rest of Africa): 21st-century version of neo-colonialism?
Could South Africa be in the hands of China? It’s a possibility, an alarming one. Though China’s presence in the country and the rest of the continent continues to bring with it a number of opportunities, we can’t be oblivious to the storm clouds present. Given Africa’s rising productivity and economic growth, it comes as no surprise that the world’s second largest economy is actively courting the continent (SA included).

In 2009, China had become our largest trading partner. And the South African government usually welcomes the Chinese presence due to the trade offers, aid and investments without “strings attached”. This was confirmed by former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe who mentioned that the Beijing Declaration, signed in 2010, “aimed to increase trade volumes and encourage investment by both countries”. Since then, Africa-China trade reached $166 billion in 2011, while earlier this year, China pledged $20 billion in loans to SA and other African quarters, double that of its 2009 commitment. But like former colonial countries, China backs its trading relations with aid, debt relief, preferential loans, scholarships, training and the provision of specialists. I am also aware that Chinese business mostly adheres to a familiar neo-colonial pattern of resource extraction, labour exploitation and infrastructure projects that fail to emphasise the development of local capacity — all of which account for a growing feeling of disquiet that I just can’t seem to shake off as a concerned South African. I am even tempted to suggest that the presence of China on the continent is imperialistic, paternalistic and exploitative. Or am I just paranoid that we might, yet again, cede economic and political control over to our foreign investors, the economic goliaths? I don’t know.

Meanwhile in the Joburg CBD (and most townships across the country)
You are likely to find foreign nationals (many of them fellow Africans) competing with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menial living. Did I say “competing”? Well, surely if these are hot-spots of localised competition for political and economic power, then I’m afraid the locals are trailing behind.

It turns out that black foreigners in South Africa have come to be perceived as a direct threat to the future economic health of the country. They are seen to be sponging off public services while diligently chipping away at the economy for their own survival. This belief goes on to suggest that the socio-economic burden created by the influx of African migrants is unsustainable. Since then, there has been a wave of xenophobic attacks on foreign-owned businesses. In May 2009 local business people sent letters to Somali traders in Khayelitsha threatening them if they did not move out of the area within a week. And just last year, xenophobic looters left Port Elizabeth shops owned by Somali and Pakistani nationals in flames.

What this basically implies is, there is no way we are going to lose our country’s economic power to fellow Africans but when it comes to different types of foreigners, ones that come bearing fruit, it’s all good and well … right?

The government
Perhaps South Africa actually belongs to its government. Meaning, the politicians call the shots, make up rules as they please with their spin doctor (Mac Maharaj or Jackson Mthembu — your pick) there to justify all of them … you know? Just like how it is in George Orwell’s celebrated allegory on revolutions — Animal Farm. For those who have not read or heard of Animal Farm: it’s a story of farmyard animals who overthrew their tyrannical human farmer, only to discover that their leaders, the pigs, adopted his clothes, moved into his house and walked around on two legs, carrying whips, protected by ferocious dogs.

Not only have the new leaders assumed the lifestyle of their former master, they have also abandoned their revolutionary ideals: their founding principle that all animals are equal has become the cynical dictum, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. Sounds familiar?

The heady rhetoric of 1994, the uplifting messianic epic of Nelson Mandela, tended to mask what was really going on in South Africa. While many of us saw it as a handover of power from minority to a majority, what actually happened was a handover from a minority to another — a change of ruling elites.

So I guess South Africa belongs to a number of entities: power-hungry foreign investors, African migrants who also want a piece of the pie and generally a better life, citizens, who, like tenants in a rented flat, occupy the space, our Animal Farm-like government and possibly, Oscar Pistorius because there’s now way an ordinary Sipho from Benoni would get away with what he did.

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