THE BIG READ: SA punching above its weight
Two years ago, on a bus from Nairobi to Kampala, I sat close to an Indian. Not next to, but slightly behind him, and to his right.
"Call me 'V'," he had said as he swivelled around in his lazyboy-like chair. V was sitting in the "VIP Section" - a single seat covered in a creamy luxurious leather next to the bus driver. From there he had access to the radio, the air-conditioner and a decent view of everything on the road to Uganda. I sat in "First Class", on one of about 10 regular seats. Behind me were the benches in "Business Class".
Last week's Brics Summit, in Durban, made me think of V.
As he slipped me a business card at some point during the 15-hour journey, he explained, rather vaguely, that import-export was his business. And at that time, he said, he was operating allover East Africa through a network of contacts. From the sound of it, they were all Indians, some of whom had been living there for decades. Others had settled in the area only recently.
"There is a lot of business to be done," he said. "Lots."
I recall asking V what he thought of South Africa; whether he saw it as the rest of the world's gateway to Africa. He stared at me blankly and did not answer. But it was clear that Johannesburg or Durban or Cape Town hardly crossed his mind as he travelled from city to city in the region, filling a weather-worn Indian passport with more stamps.
The five members of the Brics bloc - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - held their fifth summit meeting this year. South Africa joined the club in 2010. And since then there has been much talk of our country being the gateway to the rest of the continent.
But that's a stretch. Martyn Davies, CEO of Frontier Advisory, a research firm that focuses on emerging economies, argues that this country is not really a gateway.
But Johannesburg probably is, he said last year in a discussion about South Africa and its involvement in Brics.
The fact is that the other four giants are already involved in the rest of Africa, far and wide. And they have become so quite nicely without using us as a gateway.
Brazil has increased its trade with sub-Saharan Africa more than fivefold in a decade. The Portuguese-speaking South American giant is increasingly using its shared language to do business with Angola and Mozambique. The term "Lusophone axis" has been bandied about to describe the growing relationship.
China will go anywhere to find the resources it needs for its churning manufacturing hubs. They are investing heavily all over the continent and they probably expect to get what they pay for.
Drive from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, in Sudan, and you will be on a clean, solid road built by the Chinese. Southern Sudan's oil no doubt helped get the freeway built.
Western commentators have been hysterical about what they call unethical dealings with illegitimate regimes. But, hey, business is business.
And where does one draw the line? If you trade only with liberal democracies, then why scoff only at Sudan?
Isn't it worth asking when was the last time China held a democratic election?
Russia is probably doing the least business of the four in Africa. But there are probably still some ties that go back to Cold War days.
And, according to Davies, Indian companies are involved quite extensively in Africa but their initial focus has been East Africa, where they get a lot of mileage out of Indian expatriates in the region - something my friend V would attest to.
Does the Bric part of Brics really need the "s"?
Our economy and population is the size of a modest province in any of the other members. And even if South Africa is not a massive market for Chinese, Indian, Brazilian or Russian goods, their wares can nevertheless do quite a bit of damage in South Africa.
Sugar producers in Mpumalanga complained last year about Brazilian sugar landing in Cape Town.
This as South Africa produces more than enough of the sweet stuff to satisfy domestic demand.
Brazilian chicken also found its way into South African supermarkets last year, prompting local poultry producers to complain of dumping.
And the debate about cheap imports from China devastating our textile industry has been going for more than a decade.
A representative of the Department of Trade and Industry told me last week that as many as 11 deals were being signed on the fringes of the Brics summit and that some of them will benefit South Africans greatly because they will bring jobs, from the servicing of military helicopters to the assembling of television sets.
Still, why South Africa? Why not Turkey? Why not Indonesia? Why not Mexico? They all have larger economies, they grow faster.
Is it really that simple? Is South Africa (or Joburg, with its world-class airport, high-speed train to the best shopping on the continent) the gateway to a continent?
If it is, then we had better keep SAA, and its spiderweb of routes to the rest of Africa going. It will be better to sit next to V on a flight from Joburg to Kampala next time.