November 24, 2007

Out of Africa Africa

PRETORIA – “I flew in from Zambia, though I’m obviously not from ZambiaCanada actually,” I tried to explain as we made introductions in the Johannesburg airport. “Oh, so you’ve actually been to Africa then,” one of the professors replied with a laugh. “Welcome to South Africa.”

Stranded for the better part of three hours with academics from Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Zambia, it was the most welcome travel delay I can remember. The standard greetings were cynical questions about each other’s heads of state.

How’s Bob? *deep sigh* Alive. How’s Mwanawasa? Doing his best. Unfortunately his best isn’t good enough. How’s the King? (Mswati of Swaziland) Hasn’t married anyone under the age of 13 lately.

Inevitably, talk turned back to South Africa – how it’s the most promising, exploitative and dangerous country on the continent, if indeed it even does belong. “There are really three Africas: North Africa, South Africa and Africa Africa,” one ranted, “the only reason the north and south are special is because they learned how to exploit other people the fastest.”

While I protested that founding a country on a heap of gold and diamonds buried under fertile soil probably had something to do with it as well, I hesitantly agreed. For all the commotion over foreign exploitation of Africa – first by colonial governments and now by Asian investors – South Africa seems to be profiting the most from the relative poverty of its neighbours. Unable to manufacture anything for themselves, whether it be cars, shopping malls or granola bars, southern Africa turns to its undisputed master for anything that requires serious industry.

While it’s great to have a continental powerhouse in your backyard (as Canadians well know), its presence retards the development of certain things it does better. For us it’s national defence. For a country like Zambia, its telecommunications, light industry, construction, retail chains, TV, banking, sports... are all dominated by South Africans.

Finally leaving the airport, we hit Friday afternoon rush hour traffic for the 50km drive to the capital, Pretoria. Stuck in gridlock on 10-lane freeways full of late model European cars and, most worrying of all, listening to Kelly Clarkson, I secretly pined for the potholes, Corollas and Zambian reggae I’d left behind in Africa Africa earlier that morning.


Scott said...

That's a great final sentence to really capture the idea of different Africas. Parallel structure can create such a precise image when used sparingly and accurately.

April said...

You make "Africa Africa" sound nice and homey :)