A COLLEAGUE who flew in from Zimbabwe last week complained about his reception in SA. He said there was poor signage to the Gautrain, his chosen cellphone provider said it would take 24 hours to register his line, by which time he would have left SA, and a currency exchange bureau said his chosen US dollar notes were too dirty to exchange. Nothing life-threatening, but rather disappointing, he said, because SA sold itself as a world-class destination, raising expectations that one would not have on visiting other countries in the region.
A Zambian accompanying him wryly noted the signs erected above potholed roads proclaiming Johannesburg to be a world-class city. Africans from other countries often comment on what they feel is SA’s rather smug opinion of itself as an exception in Africa, based on its sophisticated economy and good infrastructure.
This opinion is bolstered by the country’s occupation of Africa’s exclusive seat on the Group of 20, its preferred candidacy for any permanent African seat on the United Nations Security Council and now the invitation to join the emerging-country Bric club (Brazil, Russia, India, China).
There is some resentment about SA’s tendency to assume, unasked, the position of the continent’s spokesman and, as a recent article said rather grandly, “the advocate of the African cause in the shifting sands of global economic power and institutional reform”.
Africans from other countries argue that SA’s leadership role has been created by countries and organisations from outside the continent rather than by African countries themselves. The political gateway concept raises questions about whether SA is also the business gateway to the continent by dint of its “exceptionalism”.
It is undisputed that SA has the most diversified and sophisticated economy on the continent, with the largest private sector, biggest capital base, world-class legal and commercial systems, air links to many African countries, political stability, relative competitiveness, strong regulation and other positives. The World Cup showcased SA’s considerable strengths.
Many top global companies run their Africa offices out of SA, the JSE is the financial centre of the continent and the country is a logistics and transport hub for its hinterland.
And it is not only foreign multinationals that have set up in SA. A number of African companies have migrated here, not just for the ease of doing business but also for lifestyle reasons. The lights come on when you flick a switch, water comes out of the taps, the road network is sound, there are good private schools and hospitals, world-class restaurants and good book shops. International companies can persuade top people to run African operations because they can offer them a soft landing in Africa.
A draw for foreign companies is also access to South African companies on the continent with a strong African footprint.
But while SA may have had the historical advantage of being a business gateway, this is rapidly being eroded by developments elsewhere, particularly as logistics and geography start to play a greater role in international business.
Nigeria is an economic hub for West Africa, Angola is a key point of contact for companies from Brazil and Portugal and those in the oil game, while Kenya and Mauritius are drawcards for Asian companies and offshore financial interests.
Dubai is growing its African ties, particularly through the expansion of flights to African cities, while London and Paris remain the headquarters for many multinationals with African interests. Even the tiny island state of Cape Verde is developing itself as a logistical transhipment point for northwest Africa.
SA has not capitalised sufficiently on its proximity to the rest of Africa and has failed to balance its continental interests with its quest for advantage in developed economies and non- African emerging markets.
Its official engagement with the rest of Africa has been ad hoc and unfocused. SA, unlike many other investing countries on the continent, has no economic strategy for its hinterland and even its political clout has been tempered by a lot of fence-sitting on difficult issues.
SA cannot afford to rest on its laurels, even as it celebrates its impending ascension as a member of Bric. It is losing traction in many African markets due to rising competition, and has mounting governance challenges at home. The days of “exceptionalism” are rapidly coming to an end.