President Jacob Zuma and Malawi President Joyce Banda

President Zuma’s remark peeled the mask off South Africa’s attitude to Africa, writes Peter Fabricius

Durban - What a bust! President Jacob Zuma’s disparaging remark last week about Malawi and about Africans as a whole really peeled the mask off the government’s attitude to the continent.

“We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally. We’re in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. This is not some road in Malawi,” he said, in defence of the proposed e-tolls on the Johannesburg-Pretoria highways.

Of course, it is true the roads are not great in Malawi, or for that matter, in most of the rest of the continent. One recalls Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni coming to South Africa for the first time and saying he felt like he had arrived in Europe.

It’s just that a South African president, an ANC president, was not supposed to say it!

The gaffe was not just a breach of diplomatic protocol – it was a public insult to an ally, and beyond that, to the entire continent.

The real problem was that Zuma so fundamentally contradicted South Africa’s foreign policy. Africa is supposed to be the focus of that policy.

Other African nations have long suspected that is not really true.

Seeing South Africa’s attention being increasingly focused elsewhere – particularly on the Brics – they have worried that South Africa has grown too grand for the continent.

Sensitive to those perceptions, South Africa has tried to present its membership of Brics, or the G20 or its deepening relations with the developed world, as being almost as much about helping Africa as helping itself.

This was especially noticeable at this year’s Brics summit in Durban when Zuma invited several African leaders to meet the five Brics leaders, mainly to hear about the infrastructure projects they wanted financing for.

Such efforts now look condescending.

But even beyond foreign policy, Zuma’s remark gave the lie to what is supposed to be the deep and fundamental philosophy of Pan-Africanism underpinning the ANC, which is always swift to rebuke other critics of the continent as Afropessimists and the like.

Zuma has certainly tried hard to make amends.

His spokesman, Mac Maharaj, at first did the usual trick of blaming the media for quoting Zuma out of context and blowing his remarks out of proportion.

He eventually had the grace to concede – though only in an ethereal radio interview and not in a more lasting statement – that Zuma’s remark was just plain wrong and so he apologised for it and withdrew it.

Zuma also sent Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Marius Fransman off to Lilongwe to apologise to Malawian President Joyce Banda in person.

The Malawian government has stressed that it accepts Zuma’s apology, so everything is back to normal.

Of course, it is not in little Malawi’s interest to officially bear a grudge against South Africa.

But the sentiment that Zuma expressed cannot be gainsaid.

That is what he feels about Malawi and Africa.

Perhaps, the South African exceptionalism Zuma inadvertently revealed when he said: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally,” can be put to good use.

In the past, the government has been reluctant to push for democracy on the continent, fearing it will come across as a hegemon, as superior.

Now that the rest of the continent already knows we feel superior, perhaps the government can put aside those concerns and do what should be done, regardless of the impression that might create.

It could be argued that has already started to happen with the aggressive campaign last year to get Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma elected as chairwoman of the AU Commission – where South Africa in effect declared itself an exception to the unwritten rule that the larger African countries should not compete for the top AU position.

But for South Africans, the real concern about Zuma’s remark should be the complacency it revealed because he made it just a few days after the Ibrahim Foundation had once again ranked South Africa only fifth in Africa for governance.

Which means in some important ways, we could benefit from “thinking like Africans”.

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.

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