African unity is vital to our country's prosperity

Next Friday is Africa Day, originally meant to mark the formation of the Organisation of Africa Union in 1963, when several African countries celebrated their independence from their colonisers and oppressors.

The OAU was replaced by the African Union in the early 2000s but Africa Day has remained and now serves as an opportunity for us to examine our African identity and the ways in which we act in solidarity (or not) with each other despite where we are located on the continent.

Celebrating Africa Day becomes especially important in a country like South Africa where most people have been insulated from the rest of the continent in the years of apartheid and feel threatened by the influx of fellow Africans since we became a democracy in 1994.

This has led to xenophobia in some communities where residents, struggling with their own economic realities, see people from other African countries as competition for jobs and economic wealth.

But while we might have been insulated from the rest of the continent during the apartheid years, the rest of the continent was not isolated from us.

Several African countries opened their borders and homes to political refugees from South Africa and created opportunities for study and military training for operatives from the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, the two main liberation organisations.

These countries often did this at great risk to themselves and their own sovereignty, especially countries close to South Africa which the apartheid army could raid in search of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and African People’s Liberation Army (APLA) operatives.

Nelson Mandela was aware of the important contribution that other African countries made to our liberation and made good relations with the other countries on the continent an important part of his government’s foreign affairs policies. Thabo Mbeki understood this too and tried to build on the good work started by Madiba.

In recent years, however, much of that work has been done by a government who has been unable to understand history, geography or economics.

History tells us that we have to act in solidarity with other African countries. They have walked the long walk to freedom with us and we should at the very least treat them with dignity and respect.

Geography tells us that if one African country suffers, we are all bound to suffer because we are so close to each other. We cannot prosper as South Africa if our neighbours are suffering.

In this regard, we can learn the lessons from the Zimbabwean implosion and the effect that it had on South Africa, with many Zimbabweans fleeing their country and looking for a better life down south.

For those who tend to disregard history and geography but who listen to economics, it does not make sense to want to grow the South African economy as if we are not part of the African continent.

We need to look at how we can maximise the economic power of all the people on the continent, as opposed to just the few million in South Africa. One of the reasons China and India are taken seriously in economic terms is because they have the population size that need to be taken seriously. South Africa’s 55-odd million population, many without real economic power, pales in comparison to the billions of people to be found in India and China.

There are some South African businesses who have seen the potential on the continent and have found ways to exploit it, but this is still the exception and not the rule.

However, exploiting the potential of the continent should not be about getting as much out of the situation as you can. Instead it should be about forging partnerships which are mutually beneficial.

Business can play a role in trying to maximise the economic potential of African unity, but our political leadership will have to ensure that the citizens understand the importance of working with and learning from others who live on our continent and whose experience could be worth learning from.

It is in no one’s interests, including short-sighted politicians, to exploit the uncertainties that exist in many communities with regards to the presence of people from other African countries. It starts with accepting our own African identities. Ultimately, it is better to build African unity than to try and destroy it.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 19 May 2018)