John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Is South Africa “African?”

by John Campbell
November 13, 2013

Jacob Zuma, leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), sings for his supporters at the Pietermaritzburg high court outside Durban August 4, 2008. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters) Jacob Zuma, leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), sings for his supporters at the Pietermaritzburg high court outside Durban August 4, 2008. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)

An off-hand comment made by President Jacob Zuma this month implied that South Africa is fundamentally different from the rest of Africa. His comments have resulted in renewed debate about the extent to which South Africa is “African.” Some examples of the debate can be found here.

According to a recording of the event analyzed by “Africa Check,” President Zuma said: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally. We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi. No.”

Multi-racial, multi-ethnic South Africa is both a developed and developing country. Economically, it is far more developed than any of the other large African states. Its white, “coloured,” and “Indian” minorities together make up about 20 percent of the population. Whites still dominate the modern economy. The country’s apartheid history is unique, but the racial segregation upon which it was based was common throughout sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial period.

Certainly under apartheid, and to a certain extent even now, whites and some “coloureds” saw South Africa as a European outpost. During the apartheid era, school textbooks often portrayed the Europeans and the “Bantu” tribes as arriving at about the same time, altogether ignoring the indigenous peoples already there.

Geography has also played a role in fostering the sense of “apartness” of South Africa. The Kalahari Desert cuts off South Africa from the rest of the continent similar to the way the Sahara Desert separates sub-Saharan Africa from the North African littoral. In both cases, however, there has always been more movement across these ostensible barriers than is often recognized.

Many intellectuals and opinion leaders insist that South Africa is, indeed, a part of Africa and that the country’s alleged “apartness” is a holdover of an apartheid mentality. That may account for some of the strong reaction to President Zuma’s apparently off-hand comments.

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