It’s hard to find an African equivalent to the resentment so many British people feel towards the European Union and other European countries. Africa’s borders are largely imposed, rather than the result of wars of conquest. So Tanzanians, for example, would not have the rivalry, sometimes friendly and sometimes not, that the British have with the French or Germans. African countries simply don’t dislike each other in the way Europeans do – a result of the crazy borders bequeathed by European colonisers.
Many British people harbour distrust of Europe as an idea – and a palpable hatred, especially of the EU. Africans, on the other hand, are constantly trying to celebrate their continent while lamenting its lack of ‘unity’. That may be because an African Union in the bureaucratic sense has not taken shape here. But even baby steps towards a more open Africa – Ghana, for instance, has dropped visa requirements for other Africans – are given a warm welcome.
We South Africans are a little more ambivalent.
South Africans know the British – particularly the English – are not partial to foreigners. They have some sympathy for the anxieties of British and other Europeans as waves of African and Muslim refugees head their way.
South Africans, too, are uncomfortable with foreigners. Outbreaks of xenophobic violence against Somalis (formidable traders) and others who appear to have found effective ways for their communities to survive are depressingly common.
South Africans are hardly fanatical about African unity. Pretoria was quick to shoot down the notion of a single African currency, more than a decade ago, which would have been run out of Nigeria. But the South African government is working steadily towards trying to integrate industry throughout the continent, and easier trade. Getting a truck through an African border can take days, weeks in some cases.
When big and established national egos are at stake, things come unstuck. South Africa and Nigeria are geopolitical rivals, but in foreign policy questions are mainly allies. And there is a manifest rivalry between Francophone and Anglophone countries at the African Union itself. Issues of African leadership frequently follow that old colonial fault line.
Down here at the bottom of Africa, our problem isn’t other people. It’s ourselves and our leaders. I suppose one could say the same for the UK. What sort of prime minister would gamble his country’s future on a referendum whose outcome he can’t control?
South Africa is distracted by a fight over the economy at its apex of power. President Jacob Zuma’s administration has stumbled from one disaster to another almost since he took office in 2009. Unemployment is higher than ever. Violent protests over the delivery of services and high fees have seen schools and university assets burned. A sound finance minister was inexplicably sacked a few months ago. The country faces a real threat of sovereign downgrades.
In reality, a UK decision to leave the EU would hit South Africa, as it would the rest of the world. As much as South Africa has pivoted to China and Russia in foreign policy, it is tightly bound to the City of London and to old loyalties, friends and experience in the UK. It exports almost no manufactured goods to its new friends in the larger emerging market economies. Those go to the US, the UK and the EU. Any disturbance of those markets would hurt.
Overall, though, for most South Africans, the British referendum is a matter of indifference. From down here, the Leave campaign smacks of Little Englanders complaining about someone else deciding whether bananas should be straight or curved.
Fundamentally, we don’t care. And, frankly, we have bigger things to worry about.
By Peter Bruce in Johannesburg