Is South Africa Impeding African Development?

Joseph Dana

AFP Photo: Guillem Sartorio

On the eve of the African edition of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town last month, South Africa was rocked by xenophobic violence. In major urban centers and smaller rural towns, South Africans attacked foreign-owned businesses, set fire to vehicles and looted shops. Nothing about these attacks was new or surprising. In the last decade alone, South African cities have been hit by wave after wave of riots targeting African migrants. In some cases, this has been spurred on by corrupt officials eager to divert attention from their own political failures. But this round of violence was different, and it could not have come at a worse time for the country’s new president.

As a regional superpower, South Africa’s simmering resentment of migrants from other African countries – a sentiment that goes right to the heart of government – threatens to derail economic and development programs across the continent. At a time when the country needs foreign partnerships more than ever, good will is eroding due to South Africa’s strict immigration policies and the threat of violence against foreigners.

For more than a year, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has been putting out fires left by his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. With state entities eviscerated by endemic corruption and unemployment rising, South Africa’s economy is on the brink of tumbling off a cliff. The national power utility, Eskom, can barely keep the lights on, while Moody’s, the credit rating service, is close to downgrading the country’s creditworthiness. This would trigger massive outflows of capital and aggravate the already delicate situation facing Ramaphosa.

The government is desperate for fresh foreign investment and the World Economic Forum was meant to show the world and the rest of the continent that South Africa was open for business. Instead, the gathering was tainted by the dark stain of South African racism towards other Africans.

Despite the fact that South Africa relied heavily on other African countries for support during the struggle to end Apartheid, the scourge of populist rhetoric decrying the “other” is firmly rooted in the country. This desire to inflict brutality on the weakest among us, which informs much of current populist thinking from the United States to East Asia, has a long history in South Africa.

During Apartheid, South African immigration policy was exceptionally brutal toward other Africans, and the years since 1994 have only partly alleviated it. Achille Mbembe, a Ghanaian professor of history at the University of Witwatersrand, captures this sentiment clearly in his pointed description of the mayor of Johannesburg. Writing in the South African daily, Mail and Guardian, Mbembe said of the mayor: “When he speaks of Africa, it is as if it is a foreign body, a burden. Africa is neither an idea nor a project but a mortal threat. If the borders were shut, South Africa would lose 26 percent of its total exports or about $25 billion.”

This strain of populist racism is completely at odds with Ramaphosa’s plan to open up the South African economy to more trade with the rest of the continent, not less. It also goes against the basis of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which provide a benchmark for myriad development projects in Africa. The specific targets of decent work and economic growth, as well as peace, justice and strong institutions, are under severe threat in Africa’s most industrialized country, which ought to be best placed to meet those targets.

Without South Africa as a regional leader, the region is directionless. This makes it all the more difficult to devise and implement broad development programs. Just as populism in the West leads to a rejection of multilateralism, the same is true of Africa.

One way of trying to divert countries such as South Africa from a dangerous path is through the creation of continent-wide free-trade and travel zones. One of these is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), wholeheartedly embraced by Ramaphosa.

If AfCFTA takes effect on July 1, 2020, as planned, it will create the world’s largest free-trade zone and, coupled with visa-free travel plans put forward at the African Union, would encourage the free movement of trade and people across the continent. Most of the participating countries have not yet ratified exact terms on certain tariffs, but for Ramaphosa the AfCFTA is a boon to the lackluster South African economy. What ordinary South Africans think about the prospect of free trade and travel is another matter, however.

Rethinking borders that were imposed arbitrarily by colonial powers is a powerful element in the decolonization discourse and it is critical if Africa is to introduce free-trade zones and free movement across the continent.

Global hyper-connectivity through the proliferation of the internet and smartphones is further making the notion of a borderless future more feasible. Removing unnecessary barriers would certainly make economic development easier. As a regional superpower, any concrete efforts to rethink borders in a manner that seeks to remedy the colonial past and empower future generations will need South Africa’s support. But South Africa’s history of racism toward other Africans pours cold water on this debate.

As Ramaphosa has vociferously argued in recent months, deeper economic and social integration in Africa would benefit all Africans. Until the ANC, the governing party, delivers on its promise to govern without corruption and lift South Africans out of poverty, South Africa will remain at arm’s length from the rest of the continent.

Joseph Dana is based between South Africa and the Middle East and is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.