South Africans need to ponder what ‘going to Africa’ means

Do South Africans truly believe theirs is just another African country? Twenty years after the advent of democracy, this question is still being asked and many critics believe the country does not fully understand – or embrace – its “Africanness”.

South Africans often say they are “going to Africa”, which highlights how many of them regard South Africa as being separate from the rest of the continent. Often used for convenience, this phrase nevertheless conveys a sense of the continent as being “over there”. It is not something you hear used elsewhere in Africa.

This sense of separateness is underlined by immigration policies and trade barriers. As one foreign businessman said at a recent forum, it is easier to get his goods into South Africa than himself. While the need for appropriate immigration controls is well understood, fellow Africans believe these are applied more vigorously to them than they are to foreigners from further afield.

This may not be the case, but the perception that people from elsewhere in Africa are not particularly welcome in South Africa is pervasive.

Issues related to South Africa in Africa and Africa in South Africa are complex and a popular topic of conversation in many places. The country is of interest to people to the north and they follow events here closely. In contrast, many South Africans who travel into rest-of-African markets for business often know little about the countries they travel to.

This subject was discussed at several events I attended in the past fortnight, in the context of how South Africa’s “backyard” might represent a much greater business opportunity than is appreciated at present.

The sense of exceptionalism – and exclusion – fostered during apartheid has persisted after 1994, compromising the warm welcome that South Africans might have expected on their own continent and feeds, sometimes unfairly, hostility towards South Africa.

The engagement since 1994 has been largely commercial and political, rather than an intercultural and interpersonal experience. Inevitably this has reinforced an unfortunate and rather unwarranted sense of South Africa as a neocolonial hegemon.

Working harder to build closer personal relationships would help to break down mistrust and suspicion between South Africans and peoples to the north. Ignorance and a lazy resort to myths about foreigners’ lives, customs, politics and history is a wedge in the divide. Understanding and trust at an individual level would only be of benefit in the political and commercial arenas.

This could start right at home. South Africa is a melting pot of cultures from around the continent, but foreigners who have chosen to live in South Africa often say they still feel like outsiders.

The lost opportunity was rather nicely summed up in a recent article by South African activist Sisonke Msimang: “All great societies are a delicious brew of art and culture and intellect. They draw the best from near and far and make them their own. By denying the contribution of Africa to its DNA, South Africa forgoes the opportunity to be a richer, smarter, more cosmopolitan and interesting society than it currently is.”

At the end of the day, South Africa is just another African country and its future is inescapably entwined with the other 54 nations out there. Twenty years on seems like a good time for reflection and debate on what this means.

This article was first published by Business Day.

Dianna Games is the CEO of Africa @ Work, a South African-based company that aims to facilitate and improve business in Africa through the provision of research, information and networking opportunities. She is also a columnist for Business Day.