UP EXPERT OPINION: SA needs to embrace an African identity

Posted on June 20, 2024

As SA’s political parties remain locked in talks to form a government of national unity, one issue that has been neglected is the battle to define the country’s foreign policy.

The Occidentalist (pro-West) DA and foreign policy analysts such as Greg Mills, Ray Hartley and Peter Fabricius have been particularly critical of SA’s championing of the global South and Palestinian rights, while generally pushing an anti-Brics and pro-Israel line. The flag-burning DA’s slogan of “Rescuing SA” echoes colonial tropes of the “White Man’s burden”.

We need to go back to history to understand the Eurocentrism of the DA and foreign policy analysts who continue to push vociferously for closer ties with the West while criticising links with China and Russia — often dismissed as “rogue states” — and parts of the Global South.

SA should, of course, maintain strong ties with its traditional western trading partners. However, it is geographically located in Africa, with many continental states having contributed to its liberation. It has also consistently championed self-determination since 1994, while China remains its largest bilateral trading partner. It is thus logical that SA should pursue a nonaligned stance that seeks to benefit from West and East, while pursuing its leadership role in Africa and the Global South.

SA’s occidentalist foreign policy analysts are, however, still stuck in an apartheid mindset, when the country was seen by its racist leaders as a western bulwark against communism.

From 1948, the heirs of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes regarded Southern Africa as an area for penetration, exploitation and destabilisation. This was the Africa of “labour reserves” from which, from the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Southern African migrants were lured to SA to work in mines, farms and industry for a pittance. This was also the Africa of “broken-backed” states, as apartheid’s marauding military bombed Mozambique, Angola, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

SA’s white leaders saw themselves culturally and politically as very much part of the West, with the country having been part of the “white dominions”, with Australia, Canada and New Zealand. DF Malan talked of “preserving Africa for white Christian civilisation”, Hendrik Verwoerd intoned “we look upon ourselves as indispensable to the white world”, while John Vorster often invoked dreams of a Southern African common market and political commonwealth dominated by SA.

Mbeki’s own vision of an “African renaissance” was inspired by his shock at what he regarded as the “slave mentality” of black South Africans after his return from exile in 1990.

Despite Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to integrate SA into the rest of Africa from his time as Nelson Mandela’s deputy after 1994, these efforts have not been deeply entrenched within SA society, as persistent xenophobic attacks against mostly black African citizens over the past three decades demonstrate.

Many black South Africans still talk about the rest of Africa as if they were not part of it. The fact that so many colonial and apartheid symbols still litter SA’s political landscape astonishes many pan-African visitors. Many South Africans — black and white — still hold the image of Africa as a “dark continent” of conflicts and disease from which they are apart.

Mbeki’s own vision of an “African renaissance” was inspired by his shock at what he regarded as the “slave mentality” of black South Africans after his return from exile in 1990. As he noted: “It was very clear that something had happened in SA society, something that didn’t happen in any other African society. The repeated observation is that ‘these South Africans are not quite African, they’re European’.”

Mbeki thus sought to use the African renaissance, speeches like “I am an African”, and locating AU institutions in SA to convince his compatriots to embrace not just a new SA identity, but a new African identity.

The views of SA’s occidentalists thus reflect this continuing battle for the country’s soul to embrace an African rather than a European identity.

Prof Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 9 June 2024.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Pretoria.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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