South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa that carries Africa in its name, yet in many ways a case can be made that South Africa still remains disconnected from the rest of the African continent. This is in part due to the inherited nature of the relationship that characterized much of the Apartheid government’s engagements with the rest of the African continent.
A relationship carried in the Apartheid definition in Afrikaans of “apartness, separation”. One of the challenges that the post-Apartheid government therefore faced was to find the ways in which it could successfully integrate itself back into the continent and into the hearts and minds of our fellow Africans.
The statement made by President Jabob Zuma on Monday that “we can’t think like Africans in Africa. It’s not some national road in Malawi” while addressing students, academics and business people at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) did not further our course, instead it further perpetuated the inherited label of South Africa as “an extension of Europe” isolated from the continent.
It also affirmed the continued “Othering” of fellow African states and an attitude of South African exceptionalism. A South African exceptionalism that goes, “we are an African country, but we are not like other African countries, we are South Africa”. This exceptionalism can be seen in claims such as the City of Johannesburg being a “world-class African city”; in statements by fellow university students such as “they live in Africa”, “they are African” when referring to fellow Africans and on an even extreme level, by the xenophobic attacks that perpetuate “a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans”. All of these statements and assumptions indicate a deep-rooted politics of separation between South Africa and the African continent.
Although the presidency have stated that the media backlash from the speech is a “distortion” and “out of context”, the statement made by president Zuma is not neutral; it has historical grounding and neither is the claim by the city of Johannesburg and small sayings by South Africans.
People need to be aware of this; we need to stop internalizing the Apartheid logic of South African exceptionalism. As stated by Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, “Mr. Zuma is still stuck in the colonial mentality that we are not one people and that South Africa is better and more superior than other African people and nations”. This at its best reflects a politics of separation.
A politics of separation that is also evident in South African academia rooted in Eurocentralism, where a Wits B.Com second year student doesn’t know what colonialism or imperialism is and where a Wits third year Politics students could not identify where Sub-Saharan Africa was on a map. Furthermore, where a second year Psychology student from the University of the Western Cape believed that South Africans do not need to know what colonialism is but rather their “immediate history” which she believes is Apartheid (exceptionalism). Wits Masters Students who could not identify even a quarter of the countries on the African map. Students who do not know Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, or simple historical African historical facts, because “that doesn’t affect us, that is not our history, we need to know South African history”, right?
It is also reflected in our media where stories happening in Europe and in North America hold greater value and attract greater coverage than what is happening in the rest of the continent. Is this because of a superior attitude that African history, thought and current affairs is inferior to us because we shouldn’t be thinking like Africans?
Is it inferior like their roads which are not as “world class” as ours? Who should we be thinking like, Mr President? As Professor Mahmood Mamdani said, we “need to begin by relocating South Africa in the African experience”.
This attitude stemming from South Africa has been seen by fellow Africans. Melinda Ozongwu shows in her piece, Why do Africans think South Africa isn’t African? that, this ‘South African exceptionalism’ is recognised by the rest of continent. She states that fellow Africans feel “South Africa stands on its own [and that] South Africa is not real Africa.” This statement affirms Neo Lekgotla langa Ramoupi’s sentiments that there has been “so much confusion sown” to get Africans to be confused about their place in Africa and as Africans in themselves.
The statement made by Zuma has opened up a can of worms and it has to be analysed within a broader historical perspective because it was not said in isolation. It is reflective of attitudes of “Othering” and South African exceptionalism that prevail in our everyday South African public discourse. To achieve the claim by Dr Kwame Nkrumah that “Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation”, South Africans, including president Zuma, need to engage in introspection and truly integrate into the rest of the continent. DM
Simamkele Dlakavu is a politics honours student at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the founder of Sakha Ulutsha Lwethu and an External Liaison for the Young Economists for Africa. She is also a One Young World ambassador, a British Council Global Change-maker, a YOWLI fellow and recently recognised by Moremi Initiative MILEAD Fellowship as one of 28 “Africa’s Most Outstanding Emerging Women Leaders” for 2013.