Does Africa need gateway to the world?

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iol new spic SA flag REUTERS Stock photo.

South Africa's election into the Brics bloc of big emerging economies (along with Brazil, Russia, India and China) comes with many expectations and obligations.

As Africa's only Brics member, we need to ask whether SA's inclusion is solely for its own benefit or as the gateway to the rest of Africa, as SA would have us believe.

There are many reasons, however, why SA should not be considered the world's gateway to Africa.

As different countries and regions in Africa continue to improve their individual competitiveness, the need for a gateway is being diminished.

Proposing SA as a gateway implies that African countries are not capable of accessing the world, which is not the case.

African countries are making great strides to integrate into the global economy.

Further, SA does not have sufficient soft power to act as a gateway between Africa and the world.

And finally, SA has myriad domestic issues that hinder it from being a continental gateway.

SA has the highest GDP in Africa, but it must be asked how long it can maintain its lead.

Other parts of the continent are continuing to integrate, increasingly operating as unified trading blocs linked by efficient transport systems, an uninterrupted and affordable supply of electricity, and telecommunications.

Other countries are also eliminating barriers to trade. If SA does not improve its competitiveness, it might flounder.

Furthermore, many African countries are taking advantage of their links to China and India.

Ethiopia, for example, is increasingly diversifying its economy and expanding growth after the global recession, which continues to diminish SA's economic power.

The Economist recently ranked the world's fastest-growing GDPs from 2001 to 2015, and SA was not on its list.

So why would the rest of Africa need SA as its gateway? Other African countries need to focus on increasing their own competitiveness in order to attract more investment for their development directly.

Nigeria, an African country that did make it onto The Economist's list of fastest-growing economies, is continuously ranked as the second largest African economy behind SA.

Considering its large population, a rapidly growing middle class, an increase in domestic industries and the expansion of Nigerian companies across the continent, Nigeria is a force to be reckoned with, especially as it is expected to restructure the basis of its GDP calculation, enabling it to pass SA in 2014 - a major psychological barrier.

However, like SA, Nigeria is plagued by corruption and crime. Nevertheless, as evident on the streets of Lagos, which are overflowing with businesses of all sizes, Nigerians are an entrepreneurial people, very focused on making money by whatever means necessary.

This contrasts sharply with SA, which is likely to be distracted for some time by major disputes over issues such as nationalisation, the legacy of apartheid and distributing wealth to the marginalised.

For SA to be a successful gateway to Africa, the Africans on the other side of the fence, so to speak, must agree to confer on it that status.

While it is true that SA has been the default “Africa brand” on such matters as hosting international sporting events, Africa has never chosen SA to be its stepping stone on other matters.

SA's failure to win anything close to the support needed to get Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as chairwoman of the African Union Commission in January was a glaring demonstration of the weakness of Pretoria's soft power.

SA's “exceptionalism”, which often causes South Africans to talk about Africa as though it was another continent, also counts against this country being accepted by other Africans as their gateway.

At its extreme, of course, this sense of otherness manifests itself as xenophobia, a disease which doesn't seem to want to go away.

SA also has to solve its many domestic issues before taking on Africa's problems. Since the ANC took power in 1994, unemployment has increased substantially, while the few who have the right political connections have grown immensely wealthy.

With about 20 percent of the population owning 80 percent of the country's wealth, future political stability is becoming a growing issue for investors - as is crime, especially violent crime.

Though official figures claim a small decline of just over 6 percent in murders in the year to March 2011 compared to the previous year, even the government acknowledges that rape is increasing. A survey by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency in SA of 4 000 women indicated that one in three had been raped. Coupled with SA's status as having the highest number of HIV infections in the world, this is not attractive to foreign business people.

SA needs to shake off its complacency. Other countries on the continent are finding solutions to their own problems and are prospering. This is reflected by progress in Rwanda, Botswana, Zambia and elsewhere.

Due to globalisation and technological advances, African countries do not need a go-between. African countries are ready to face the world, on their own, regionally and continentally.

*Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa is founder of Hoja Law Group and a Mo Ibrahim Leadership fellow at the World Trade Organisation.

Charles Wachira is a journalist in Kenya.


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