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The rainbow nation through African eyes

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 31 May 2010 08:44

When Mandela walked out of prison, a whole continent rejoiced. When the long lines of South African voters snaked out in the sunshine, Africa cheered. But is the honeymoon over? Although South Africa may be a beacon of hope to many in Africa, it is increasingly not an El Dorado for immigrants. Meanwhile, South African capital continues its march across the continent.

Miyere Ole Miyandazi was briefly the talk of Cape Town about five years ago. Ole Miyandazi, a Maasai from Narok, southern Kenya, had walked 4,000 km from Narok to South Africa’s Cape. Resplendent in his traditional shuka, he had taken five months to complete the trek.

Like many others, Ole Miyandazi had chosen South Africa to make a point about his continent. In South Africa he had hoped to find a sympathetic government and media. He had wanted to highlight the plight of the Maasai, whose land, culture and ways of life were fast disappearing – wracked by a combination of political exclusion, land grabs and the impact of global tourism.

For a brief moment, Ole Miyandazi had grabbed the attention of Cape Town society. He was front-page news in the local press. He appeared on television shows and was invited to a New Age-style holistic spa where he was the centrepiece of a human-installation art exhibition. He was required to stand completely still in the backyard of the spa, enmeshed in barbed wire and fencing stakes. People came to the spa from all over the country to see him. An ?African-American woman said that Ole Miyandazi had changed her life. Another woman saw him on television and made her own pilgrimage from Stellenbosch to the Cape Town spa. She broke down in tears upon arrival, overwhelmed by the sight of the Maasai warrior in the flesh. Then, as ever, the caravan moved on.

Images for a continent

South Africa’s new role as host to the African spectacle continues. If anything, it is becoming more important as the rest of the world seems to be increasingly unclear about African realities and somehow requires South Africa to interpret them.South Africa’s historical moments have been replete with symbolism. The end of apartheid was marked by Nelson Mandela’s walk from the prison gates on 11 February 1990. Millions remember the patient queues snaking along in the country’s first free elections as South Africans voted for an African National Congress (ANC) government in April 1994.

A year later, Mandela wore the green and yellow Springboks jersey during the finals of the Rugby World Cup, almost willing into reality the birth of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. These are the compelling symbols of South Africa’s journey to freedom that ?Africans and many others applauded in solidarity.

Symbols of the reuniting of a free Africa, of Africans’ encounters with post-apartheid South Africa, are much rarer. Miyere Ole Miyandazi’s fleeting time in the Cape Town spotlight – even with its echoes of Saartjie Baartman, the Khoisan woman taken from South Africa for racist exhibitions in Britain and France in the early 19th century – would rank as one of them, but it served to show how separate much of Africa north of the Limpopo River remained for many South Africans. In fact, few questions were asked about Ole Miyandazi’s remarkable trek to the Cape.

Post-apartheid South Africa is, for many Africans across the continent, an El Dorado, a mythical place in which dreams and aspirations might be realised. As Africa’s biggest and most modern economy, it became a magnet for millions fleeing conflict and economic stagnation.

That the new South Africa emerged just as a million people were slaughtered in Rwanda in April 1994 ?further reinforced the sense of difference and the idea of Africa’s rebirth. A few years later, President Thabo Mbeki, who regularly quoted African novelists and poets and referred to the works of the continent’s sculptors and painters, spoke of an ‘African Renaissance’. It may have had more reality north of the ?Limpopo than in his own country.

African cosmopolitans?

Today, South Africa hosts about four million foreigners. Although the vast majority of them are refugees and economic migrants, many in South Africa’s corporate elite of investment bankers, commercial lawyers and information technology (IT) specialists have been recruited from elsewhere in Africa, including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

For this community of ‘Afropolitans’, many of whom had been working in Europe or North America, it seems that South Africa is a halfway house between the West and a permanent return to their home countries. It offers the technology and modernity of the West but also the freedom and the risks of Africa.

Eric Mwangi, a Kenyan IT consultant, moved to Johannesburg from New York 10 years ago. “At that point, emigrating to Johannesburg was seen as a maverick move,” he recalls. “Very little was known about South Africa then. In the past five years, I have a lot of friends who have moved here from the US, the UK and Kenya. South Africa is a fantastic country. The cost of living is relatively low and the quality of life is quite high. It’s like living in the First World on Third World rates.”

Mwangi was not caught up in the xenophobic riots that swept South Africa in May 2008, leaving 60 people dead and thousands displaced.?But something has changed, he says. He had been on holiday in Kenya soon after its disputed December 2007 elections when ethnic violence broke out. “It was sad,” he says of the riots five months later in South Africa. “The trust between South Africans and us non-South ?Africans was broken.” President Mbeki’s government had encouraged the growth of a black elite which visibly prospered in the new era. But the Afropolitans have some forebodings about the future as South Africa’s economy sputters and contracts. They are worried about the direction the country is taking, in particular the strident nationalism and populism of politicians such as ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Mulugeta-Ayalew Birru escaped to South Africa from Ethiopia in 2003 after he got word the security forces were after him. “When I was in college, I read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and after I read that book I felt that South Africa would be the best place in Africa,” says Birru. The xenophobic attacks in 2008 have left him deeply disenchanted. “I thought it would be different, but they have no regard, unless of course if you are a white man from Europe. South African blacks will give you more respect if you are a white than if you are from an African country,” he adds.

“South Africa was isolated for a long time,” says Mwangi. “They have developed a siege mentality. The ?national psyche is a bit negative. There’s a tendency to complain a lot.” As a result, he says, the best ambassadors for South Africa are non-South Africans who now live there. “We have a lot of good things to say about the country.” (See interview with Nigeria’s Dele Olojede.)

If that is a view of a globalised African elite, the encounters between ordinary Africans at home with post-apartheid South Africa are much less sanguine. After the end of apartheid, it was South African capital that had accumulated under – and indeed because of – apartheid that started to penetrate the rest of Africa, emboldened by the country’s shift from ?pariah to global icon for freedom.?

Decidedly white, male and bearing the hallmarks of apartheid, South African companies quickly developed a reputation for brashness and arrogance in their relations with locals as they set up in Africa.

On the banks of the Congo River, just upstream from Kinshasa, a leisurely Sunday barbecue is in progress. Among the guests sitting round a ?table shaded by a gazebo from the hot afternoon sun are Congolese business people, French industrialists and the sales representative of a large South African wine and spirits conglomerate who is in Kinshasa to expand the company’s market share and take business away from the mainly-French competition. White and stocky, the sales rep lectures the other guests: “Our message to the consumer is why should he buy from the old colonial powers like France when he can buy from Africa? Our wines are just as good as theirs and better priced too.”

Marketing SA-Style

The guests – even the French ones – agree that South African wines are excellent and welcome the fact that there is competition. However, eyes start to roll heavenward as the man talks relentlessly about how wonderful South Africa is and how well he understands the ?African market, “because we are ?African too”. All the while, he brushes aside comments from those listening about Congolese peculiarities, quirks and qualities that he – as a non-French speaking, white foreigner – might not yet have grasped.

In late February, the Congolese government rejected a proposal by Westcor, a five-country partnership led by South African energy parastatal Eskom, to develop a 5,000MW hydroelectric project at Inga, on the lower reaches of the Congo River, preferring instead to deal with international mining giant BHP Billiton. Westcor’s Pat Naidoo blamed Congolese politics on the decision, but several sources close to the project claimed that Eskom never “got it”. “They were too ?arrogant,” says one, “always making the Congolese feel like they knew better. Sure, they often did, but that is not the way to do things here.”

In Tanzania, where for two decades founding President Julius Nyerere had led the frontline states in supporting the liberation struggle, the arrival of corporate South Africa was treated with suspicion. “These people were not welcome here,” says a Dar es Salaam journalist. “They paired up with corrupt politicians to fleece our country’s mineral deposits. We called them kaburu,” he says, using the Kiswahili word for colonialists. “You will not meet many people here who like them.”

There is a lingering feeling among Tanzanians that a liberated South Africa abandoned its historical commitments to the frontline states. The Solomon Mahlangu Camp in ?Morogoro hosted thousands of South African exiles. Many of them had children with Tanzanian women, but at the end of the struggle the men returned to South Africa, leaving behind their wives and children. Attempts to reunite the families have been largely futile.

Since the demise of apartheid, ?Africa has become the third-biggest destination for South African investors and manufactures. South African companies, selling everything from mobile phones, beer, cars and furniture to lifestyle magazines and films, have so successfully entrenched themselves in ?Africa’s marketplace that they now help to define consumption patterns across the continent. Buying groceries at Shoprite, eating at Nandos and watching the English Premier League on DStv have ?become symbols of middle-class existence. In addition, South African-sponsored shows such as Big Brother Africa and M-Net Face of ?Africa, and South African-produced lifestyle magazines and music are shaping African youth culture.

This, combined with the perceived arrogance of South African business people, has bred a troubling mix of aspiration and resentment. “There is a colonial-imperialist reflex that characterises South African capital,” says Ntone Edjabe, founding editor of Chimurenga, a literary journal based in Cape Town.

Take it down a notch?

“South African companies regard the rest of Africa as an empty landscape to be turned into a market for South African products and believe that prefixing the word ‘Africa’ to this white, apartheid-era capital will make them acceptable in the rest of the continent.” Edjabe, from Cameroon, has lived in South Africa since the mid-1990s and Chimurenga has chronicled the journey from the heady days of the Rainbow Nation honeymoon to the present.

“Part of the problem is that South Africa bought the myth of its own importance from the West. South Africa has grown up in public for the past 200 years; there’s always a conversation somewhere in the West about South Africa,” he explains. “As a result, South Africans have a tendency to speak on behalf of the continent, regardless of the fact that within South Africa there is only a naïve self-reaffirming interest in Africa, a sloganeering pan-Africanism that is totally ahistorical and out of touch with the realities on the continent.”

As South African companies, freed from apartheid-era sanctions, expanded into the rest of the continent, they saw it as virgin territory where they could make up their own rules. In many of these markets, especially in Southern Africa, the private sector had been stunted by decades of state socialism, civil war or both. It is in these territories that the image of ‘the ugly South African’ has taken root.

In countries such as Kenya which have enjoyed relative stability, there is a nationalist bourgeoisie that has developed a fairly sophisticated corporate sector which is ready to compete with the incoming South African companies. Although the march of South African corporate expansion may have been checked by the strength of some of Kenya’s national brands, many smaller economies have opened their doors wide to South ?African capital.

Such liberalism has not always been reciprocated. South Africa’s ?domestic market has remained closed, less by official policy than by the stranglehold of domestic corporate ?giants, which has deepened the ?already well-established resentment for South African capital. Nigeria exemplifies this. In the 1970s, Nigeria, awash with oil money, vigorously helped fight apartheid and racism. Nigerian civil servants contributed a percentage of their salaries to the struggle. When British Petroleum was caught busting sanctions by supplying oil to Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia from South Africa, the Nigerian government nationalised the company’s ?assets in Nigeria in 1977 and the company has never recovered its position in the country.

Nigerian musicians such as Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Sonny Okosun wrote songs against apartheid and played at benefit concerts for the liberation struggle. “Nigeria was very much involved in South Africa, in ways that many of us no longer ?remember,” says Muhtar Bakare, a ?Lagos banker-turned-publisher. “We took the struggle personally. We donated blankets and things to the cause. The liberation struggle represented the height of our pan-Africanism.”

Disappointed democrats?

After the landmark 1994 elections, the Mandela government became a source of great hope for Nigeria’s democracy activists. When dictator General Sani Abacha executed the Niger Delta campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, Mandela called for the overthrow of Abacha’s junta. It seemed there was a new moral force in Africa, and South Africa was ready to repay some of the liberation debt.?

“What was happening in South Africa energised us,” recalls Bakare. “Mandela in power reminded us that everything was possible, that we could throw out these people who were practising a perverse form of pan-Africanism that ignored ordinary people.”?

But as Nigerians flocked to South Africa, locals associated them with drug dealing and criminality. The fact that there were many Nigerian professionals doing business in South Africa did not seem to matter in the popular imagination. “The Nigerian narrative in South Africa has been appropriated by the Hillbrow Nigerian,” observes Bakare.

At the same time, South African companies such as the mobile-phone operator MTN have successfully entered the Nigerian market. Nigeria quickly became MTN’s biggest and most profitable market, and many other South African companies quickly followed that path.

However, Nigerian companies complain that they are denied entry into South Africa. “We regard South Africa as an equal competitor,” says Bakare. “But they have not reciprocated in opening up their markets to our products. We feel spurned by South Africa. We felt that very little was done to acknowledge our historical contribution to their struggle. Our relationship should be more collaborative. In the same way that we opened our market to their companies that have profited so much from us, we would like to compete in their market.”?

If the June 2010 World Cup presents a continental opportunity to restore, even partly, the old ?solidarities of the liberation struggle, the way in which the event has been marketed across Africa has annoyed many Nigerians. The source of irritation is an advertisement set in 2030 on DStv that seems to imply that South Africa is the only African country that will ever host the World Cup. “What makes them think that Nigeria won’t host the World Cup in the next 30 years?” asks one Nigerian blogger. “Nobody is making any effort to get me to the World Cup,” says Bakare. “But they seem to be falling over backwards to get the Europeans and Americans there. So I’ll keep my hard-earned dollars in my pocket and watch it on TV here in Lagos.”

Time to come together?

For the thousands of African ?students and professionals who have studied and worked in South Africa, however, the country still represents the best of the continent. “It’s the most positively-energised place on the continent,” says Tom Odhiambo, who studied at the University of Witwatersrand and now teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.For Chimurenga’s Ntone Edjabe, who continues to live in Cape Town, South Africa remains a place of boundless opportunities. “There’s a sense of possibility here. Being part of the transformation of this society continues to give me the sense of the numerous ways we can be African. What South Africa presents us with is a question: is it possible to merge the institutional strengths you find here with the African entrepreneurial spirit? South Africa, in this sense, may give us the opportunity to be really contemporary.”

For more from South Africa, read Azad Essa’s interviews with Kenyan and Ethiopian immigrants in South Africa, and Gregory Mthembu-Salter on why, when it comes to business, South Africa is an African gateway with a humility problem. And read opinion pieces from Audrey Brown on South Africa’s diplomatic baggage, plus and interview with Nigerian publisher Dele Olojede on the special relationship between Nigeria and South Afric

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s June-July edition.

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