The recent waves of xenophobic violence in South Africa have once again brought inter-continental relations to the fore. While African intellectuals have been pushing for better relations on the continent and Pan African ideals, the ugly truth is that we may be distant from each other now as Africans than at any other point in history.
South Africa, because of its economic strength, deep pockets and place in history, naturally should be leading the integration of Africa, but sadly, it is a young country, with a history of isolation and which finds comfort in looking at itself internally and sometimes is quite oblivious to what is happening externally.
I was quite disturbed last week when I listened to BBC Africa podcast from South African students at some school. They hardly knew Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah or god forbid, which region Namibia – a former South African colony – is on the African map.
While this ignorance cannot be generalised to the whole country, it is a microcosm of a problem in South Africa, a good number of its citizens barely have the faintest idea of what is happening beyond their doorstep.
So while some can argue that South Africans are resorting to xenophobia “yet we helped them during their fight against apartheid”, the painful truth is that a good number of South Africans have no idea what help they received and whom they received it from and this argument fails to be of any relevance to them.
This is not to excuse xenophobia nor is it an attack on South Africa. As I pointed out, South Africa was isolated for too long, hidden from the rest of the world and its nationals hardly knew what was going on across their borders, this is an accident of history that we cannot run away from.
There have been efforts by South Africa to look beyond itself, Mandela negotiating a peace deal in the then Zaire, Mbeki fighting Gaddafi for the Pan African Parliament and also pushing for his vision, the African Renaissance.
South Africa also played a leading role in Nepad, peace negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan and the preservation of important historic texts in Timbuktu among others. And something that I am passionate about, Africa owning its narrative, South Africa set up SABC Africa, which unfortunately was closed.
Sadly, most of the projects, while bringing South Africa to the fore, broadening its interaction with the continent and placing it at the forefront of integration, are on the demise, as the incumbent seems not to have an interest in the Pan African vision of his predecessors.
While President Zuma may argue that he was involved in political negotiations in Zimbabwe, this was something he inherited from his predecessor, which he treated as an inconvenient irritant and he was only ever too eager to wash his hands off those negotiations.
To show South Africa’s waning influence on the continent – once Africa, on the back of principles, backed South Africa on the issue of the Pan African Parliament against Gaddafi who was willing to throw money at any problem he faced, now South Africa struggles to convince its neighbours to vote for its candidate in AU commission elections, something probably unfathomable some 10 some years ago.
Hence, while we might have some high sounding statements about Africa being one and the Africa Rising narrative, the sad truth is we may be growing more distant by the day.
South Africa has all but abdicated its role as the leader of many Pan African initiatives and while other nations may pretend to be championing these ideals, their pockets are not deep enough and their influence is not nearly half of South Africa’s.