President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House in Abuja, Nigeria. Picture: REUTERS/NIGERIA PRESIDENCY
President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House in Abuja, Nigeria. Picture: REUTERS/NIGERIA PRESIDENCY

South Africans — and indeed most Africans — love to think of their country as unique. And SA is unique in Africa — but not for the reasons most people think.

The popular view is that what makes SA stand out are the glittering glass and steel skyscrapers scattered over numerous great cities; the cities linked by super-highways and railways; and sprawling industrial, commercial and agricultural enterprises as far as the eye can see.

This, however, is not what makes SA unique on the continent; several countries in Africa are fast catching up. What does make SA unique is its history, and the continuation of that past in the present.

SA is the only country in mainland Africa that imported slaves rather than exporting people into slavery elsewhere.

To make way for the imported slaves, as well as their Dutch masters and overseers, SA’s indigenous people were slaughtered in an orchestrated campaign of genocide that lasted more than 100 years. It is, therefore, something of a miracle that indigenous people today constitute the majority of the population.

SA is the only country in Africa that belongs to what are called New World countries. These were the countries largely created in the Americas after Christopher Columbus’s journeys 500 years ago. They were carved out of North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean islands by the European powers of the day. The primary purpose was to exploit their mineral riches and transform their lands into plantations to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton for European markets.

The native people who resisted this exploitation were exterminated, and slaves from Africa were introduced to replace them. Those who survived were marginalised economically, politically and socially, and were banished to reservations (where many still live in North America).

But an important question — one that is seldom asked — is: how did some of SA’s native populations survive the carnage, and go on to eventually gain political control of the country?

When SA emerged from this long and tortuous story in 1994, two elites were in place: a political elite and a business elite. The political elite, through democratic processes, control the state. They are voted in almost exclusively by descendants of the indigenous populations.

The business elite control much of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Their origins lie largely in the populations that shipped in from Europe in the 17th century and later.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, with these two very powerful elites, SA has two policies towards Africa.

The business elite’s relationship with the rest of the continent is fairly clear. Africa presents opportunities as a market and as an investment destination, and so SA investment in Africa jumped from a mere R6.1bn in 1994 to R431.1bn in 2014.

The real source of trouble and uncertainty in relations between SA and the rest of Africa is the ambivalence of SA’s political elite, who see themselves as defenders of Africa. But what exactly they are defending, against whom and with what means, is never clear.

We saw, in the makings of the New World, that there were populations that survived the carnage. In the course of the struggles, these populations were stripped of their assets and, in many instances, of their identities as well. New identities were created that were in tune with the new circumstances of subjugation.

This was the fate that SA’s political elite suffered. Because they were left with no assets, they were unable to define their national interest as a group, let alone as a country.

There’s also ambiguity in the identity of this political elite. As part of the New World, they saw themselves as an extension of the Old World, which is fundamentally European. At the same time, as survivors of the horrors that gave birth to the New World, the political elite did not fully identify with Western civilisation. So they vacillated, and fell between stools. Today, when they are called upon as an African government to take positions on critical African issues, they often equivocate, and are overtaken by events.

This is nowhere better illustrated than in relations between the ANC and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. To stay in power, the Zanu-PF government has, since 2000, broken every rule of a functioning democracy — yet the ANC government has stuck by it. It’s gone as far as opening SA’s borders, providing a safety valve so that the aggrieved Zimbabwean population — those who lost their livelihoods as a result of the Zanu-PF government destroying the country’s agricultural system — could escape to SA.

This seeming open-door policy has led to migrants coming to SA from as far afield as Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Once here, they have found themselves in poor neighbourhoods, in competition with poor South Africans for resources and opportunities.

It has given rise to conflict that the political elite — themselves responsible for distributing resources and creating opportunity — then dismiss simply as criminal activity.

A fractious relationship seems to exist between SA and the rest of Africa, but this friction is driven by SA’s directionless political elite in their attempts to be all things to all people.

Mbeki is deputy chair of the SA Institute of International Affairs