Interviewing politicians is, as a rule, not particularly exciting for journalists. Interviews can be a nightmare to schedule, and when they finally happen it’s hard to get politicians singing from anything other than their tightly-scripted song sheet. At times, the whole exercise feels like a glorified press release, and we have to work really hard to fill in the gaps and find an interesting angle.
Every now and then, however, someone will come along who wanders so far off-script that the headlines practically write themselves. Right now, that someone is Zambian Vice-President Guy Scott.
In an astonishingly frank and frequently hilarious interview with the Guardian’s David Smith (worth reading in full), Scott dispensed with all diplomatic niceties to offer his opinion on Robert Mugabe, gay rights, his government’s human rights record and – most interestingly for us – South Africa and South Africans.
He’s not very impressed with us.
Try this for starters:
“The South Africans are very backward in terms of historical development,” he told Smith. “I hate South Africans. That’s not a fair thing to say because I like a lot of South Africans but they really think they’re the bees’ knees and actually they’ve been the cause of so much trouble in this part of the world…I have a suspicion the blacks model themselves on the whites now that they’re in power. ‘Don’t you know who we are, man?’”
He continued in this vein: “I dislike South Africa for the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States, I think. It’s just too big and too unsubtle.”
Ouch. Arrogant, unsubtle trouble-makers who haven’t quite got over apartheid – surely he’s got us all wrong? Doesn’t he know we’re the rainbow nation?
But much as I want to be offended, my inclination to argue with Scott is tempered by the fact that I’ve said nearly the exact same thing myself. “The rest of Africa doesn’t like us very much,” I wrote in an analysis last year. “Being a South African in Africa is like being an American in the rest of the world. We’re looked upon with a mix of envy and resentment, our wealth and power relative to the rest of the continent ensuring that most of the time we get our way.”
Alright Scott, we’ll cede this point to you – we can be a little overbearing when it comes to our interactions with Africa. And yes, our current leaders may have learned a few tricks from their apartheid-era predecessors, specifically the one about running an entire country for the benefit of a privileged minority (for ‘whites’ insert ‘Guptas’).
But Scott’s not yet finished with his South Africa-bashing, going on to question the holy grail of South African foreign policy: our BRICS membership. “They think in Brics that the ‘s’ actually stands for South Africa whereas it stands for Africa. Nobody would want to go in for a partnership with Brazil, China, India and South Africa for Christ’s sake.”
Again, we must reluctantly concede that Scott has a point. South Africa’s addition to BRICS has always been contentious, precisely because we do not wield anything near the kind of economic or political power of the other nations in the group (including Russia, which Scott failed to mention). As the Economist explained in March, our primary qualification was geographic.
“There was just one problem with the BRICs: no African countries were included. This was a little embarrassing. Overlooking Africa suggested that the continent was an economic irrelevance, good only for providing raw materials to the rest. It also cast doubt on the group’s claim to speak for the emerging world. Two African countries might have been candidates, Nigeria and South Africa. But only one would keep the acronym intact. And so, in 2010, the club of BRICs became the BRICS.”
Scott’s final attack was even more personal, and won’t make him any friends in the Union Building. He compared President Jacob Zuma to another South African president – and no, it wasn’t Mandela.
“He’s very like De Klerk,” Scott said. “He tells us, ‘You just leave Zimbabwe to me.’ Excuse me, who the hell liberated you anyway, was it not us? I mean, I quite like him, he seems a rather genial character but I pity him his advisers.”
Again, this taps into a gnawing resentment from other African countries about South Africa’s at times bull-headed foreign policy. The mediation efforts in Zimbabwe may formally be under the SADC banner, but Pretoria is setting the agenda, and has been since Mbeki’s time in office. This is clearly beginning to rankle with our regional neighbours. And the barb about Zuma’s advisers is disingenuous, and is the only nod to diplomatic courtesy in the entire interview. For Zuma, ultimately, is responsible for appointing his pitiable advisors; to criticize them is to criticize him.
But perhaps Scott’s most telling point is his position on who liberated South Africa. A number of factors went into the dismantling of the apartheid state in 1994, and a major one was the support of other African states for the anti-apartheid movement. Zambia in particular played a hugely significant role, hosting the ANC’s head office-in-exile where, for a time, a certain Jacob Zuma found a home.
For this, South Africa owes Zambia a debt of gratitude, but it’s a debt that Zambia’s vice-president clearly feels has not been paid. This might be the underlying cause of his resentment, with our sometimes brash behaviour only making things worse.
Either way, it’s clear that the South African government has a few bridges it needs to build with its Zambian counterpart, and it will be interesting to see how our top politicians react to Scott’s frank, if insulting, assessment – which, like all the best insults, is just a little too close to the bone for comfort. DM
Zambian vice-president: ‘South Africans are backward’ on the Guardian
PHOTO: United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (L) talks to Zambia’s Vice-President Guy Scott shortly after his arrival at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, February 24, 2012. REUTERS/Mackson Wasamunu
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