SA’s hubris and the truth of how we are viewed

December 29, 2015, 7:52am

By Lindiwe Mazibuko on Business Day Live
Photo: Business Day Live

ONE of the more illuminating features of living as a South African politician in an academic community abroad is being able to observe the loop of international opinion about our country from the outside, and see how rapidly it is changing over time.

A year ago, people tended to lead with condolences on the passing of President Nelson Mandela, usually followed by fond memories of the 2010 World Cup.

Lately, however, telling people where I am from has begun to elicit reactions that would be more appropriate to my announcing that I was recently bereaved, or that I had a close family member who was terminally ill.

"Oh, SA is such a great country. I was there recently," the response usually begins, followed by expressions of sympathy along the lines of: "We all had such great hopes for your country. It’s a pity that things aren’t working out the way they should."

This reaction is not limited to people from the US and countries in Europe. It is a refrain one hears with increasing despair and resignation from fellow Africans.

As I pen this column, I am sitting in an airport in Spain, en route back to the US after four days in Marrakech, where I attended the annual summit of the African Leadership Network — brainchild of Ghanaian educational entrepreneur and all-round business savant, Fred Swaniker.

Over four hot days and chilly nights I have listened to countless young Burundian, Ivorian, Moroccan, Nigerian, Senegalese, Ghanaian and many, many more leaders from across the continent express their disappointment in what is perceived to be the downward trajectory of our country’s prospects for growth and prosperity.

Some expressed disappointment in our failure to take up a more credible multilateral leadership role in Africa; others lamented the lack of domestic political leadership in SA and despair for the millions of young people for whom there seems to be little or no hope of escape from poverty and unemployment.

Others voiced concern about the outlook for our higher education system, even as they were inspired by the activism of the students of the #FeesMustFall protests.

And the golden thread that ran through almost every conversation was the scourge of corruption: if SA cannot tackle this cancer, how can it be expected to succeed?

Regardless of the specifics, the dominant international narrative of SA today seems to be one of deep disappointment in the vast potential and opportunity that have been wasted. There can surely be no more potent symbol of the hubris — even delusion — that governs SA’s view of its own position within the global community than Armscor’s R4bn planned jet acquisition on behalf of President Jacob Zuma.

How such a callous decision could be taken at a time of massive economic hardship for ordinary citizens boggles the mind. But to those watching our country from the outside, it is yet another example of a decline that appears devastatingly inevitable; those in the ivory tower of government climb higher and feast ever more luxuriously, while SA’s people face an ever more bleak and uncertain future.

Back in Marrakech, comparisons by delegates between the divergent trajectories of SA and Nigeria seemed irresistible: the story of the former in decline seemed to be mirrored by that of the latter on the rise.

A peaceful change of government, which has given way to the measured but decisive style of leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari; competent ministerial appointments to which thought and effort have clearly been paid; modest military victories against Boko Haram in the country’s hinterland; and real efforts at economic diversification in the face of crippling oil prices and a stagnating manufacturing sector. All of these mark out Africa’s newly minted largest economy as a nation with its eyes firmly on the future.

SA, on the other hand, seems increasingly to be defined by hubris: a steadfast belief in its own exceptionality even in the face of mounting evidence that its biggest supporters are losing faith in the country’s ability to be an economic and political leader on the African continent.

If US President Barack Obama’s recent ultimatum on preferential terms of trade is a bellwether for declining goodwill towards SA, we may soon find ourselves short on friends and international supporters at a time when we desperately need both.

• Mazibuko is a resident fellow of the Harvard Institute of Politics and former parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance