Should South Africans hate themselves and hate Malawi more?

October 26, 2013 12:04 pm0 comments by:

Sanral+e+tollIt doesn’t take a lot for President Jacob Zuma to upset South Africans, and (it appears) indeed the whole continent. Whatever the source of contempt for President Zuma, it appears to cloud our judgment completely.
On Monday President Jacob Zuma addressed an ANC manifesto forum attended by students, academics and businesspeople at Wits University. When speaking about e-tolls, he said “The principle of user pay has to be applied to complement the money government spent [to build the roads]. This is what all economies in the world do. We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally, we’re in Johannesburg.”
To drive his point home, Zuma compared the M1, which links Johannesburg and Pretoria, to roads in Pietermaritsburg, Rustenburg and then to “some national road in Malawi”.
Zuma’s comments have caused a spurt of diatribe. The objections, as I understand them, are two-fold. First, some (like Siyanda) suggest that Zuma’s comments indicate dislike for African-ism. The argument is that Zuma is promoting self-hate: the idea that to be prosperous (like the city of Johannesburg) you need to think like something other than an African.
The second argument is that Zuma was being derogatory towards Malawi. In this regard, Ranjeni Munusamy argues that Zuma’s comments “were outrageous statements to be made by an African head of state and undermined the agenda for respect and unity of African nations.”
Africans must not think?
The suggestion that Zuma was saying Africans must think like something other than Africans is as outrageous as the underlying premise.
The problem is that those annoyed by this statement disregard the context. Zuma was speaking in the context of a “user pay” system (e-tolling) that is being implemented by government in certain parts of Johannesburg. Zuma compared Johannesburg to the rest of Africa and he implied that occupants of the city of Johannesburg need to think differently about the city they occupy. This true.
Johannesburg is branded as “a world-class African city”. A world-class city comes with a hefty price tag. That tag is carried by the occupants of the city.
Objectors disregard even the content of Zuma’s speech. Zuma said we can’t think like Africans in Africa “generally,” because we are in Johannesburg. This is clearly a reference to a location and not an identity.
We could perhaps reduce the geographic breadth of Zuma speech to better understand his message. We can do this by replacing “Africans” with “South Africans” and thus the statement would read: “We can’t think like South Africans in South Africa generally, we’re in Johannesburg.” There is nothing wrong with this statement in the context of paying for road-use.
For example, people in Qunu (a rural village in South Africa) do not pay to use local (municipal) roads; they pay only when using main roads connecting cities and provinces. The reason is that roads handling large volumes of traffic are expensive to build and difficult to maintain. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with telling people travelling between Durban and Pietermaritzburg (much larger cities) “not to think like people in Qunu” about the cost of travel.
Do we hate Malawi?
It is quite baffling to hear people say that the president’s statement is pejorative towards Malawi. The president compared roads in Johannesburg to roads in two other South African cities and then to “some national road in Malawi”. If I argued that the president was being pejorative towards Pietermaritzburg or Rustenburg (both are South African cities), I would appear quite juvenile. What is different about Malawi?
To say Johannesburg roads are not the same as Durban roads is simply a fact. It does not mean Johannesburg is better than Durban. Pietermaritzburg roads are not the worst roads in the world but they are also not like the recently revamped Johannesburg M1.
I think the argument that Zuma disrespected Malawi says more about the objectors than it does about Zuma. Zuma’s comments were neither undiplomatic nor disrespectful. They were simply facts.
Even if President Zuma was commenting on the “sorry” state of Malawian roads, why would this be disrespectful? Why is it disrespectful for a South African to comment about the problems facing other parts of Africa?
Despite the irrational borders drawn by colonial masters, Africans occupy the same space and share the same heritage. Struggles facing one part of Africa will inadvertently affect the rest of Africa. Since the Africa-wide struggle for decolinisation there have been enormous efforts to unify Africa and to “commonalise” African problems. Underdevelopment is one such problem.
For those objectors criticising Zuma for commenting on Malawian roads, try thinking of Malawian problems as your problems. Problem solved.

Brad Cibane writes in his personal capacity. This post is not in defence of Zuma’s presidency or the ANC generally. Twitter: @Brad_Cibane

Leave a Reply


(Spamcheck Enabled)

Facebook

Get the Facebook Likebox Slider Pro for WordPress