Thu Dec 08 16:21:05 CAT 2016

THE BIG READ: Why other Africans hate us

Rams Mabote | 2013-05-10 01:22:16.0
The Absa building in Johannesburg symbolises an arrogance that makes others think we are the 'bees knees'
Image by: ALON SKUY

The Polish novelist Joseph Conrad remarked in The Secret Agent : "As a general rule, a reputation is built on manner as much as on achievement."

Two events in the past week or so reminded me of Conrad's words.

First, it was the undiplomatic outburst by Guy Scott, Zambian Vice-President, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper.

Among other things, Scott said he "hates South Africans" because "they really think they're the bees' knees and actually they've been the cause of so much trouble in this part of the world".

He went on to say he could understand the way Latin Americans feel about the US because South Africa is the same: "It's just too big and too unsubtle."

Then, last Sunday, Orlando Pirates were subjected to all sorts of dirty tactics by TP Mazembe in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Captain Lucky Lekgwathi was sent off under questionable circumstances, and then Mazembe, who needed a 2-0 win to go through on an away goals rule, were handed all sorts of dubious decisions, including two penalties, both of which were blocked by Pirates keeper Senzo Meyiwa.

The SABC crew that arrived in Lubumbashi were refused permission to broadcast the match live, their equipment was confiscated and two members of their travelling party were detained.

Now much has been made about these two events, with some people blaming both events on xenophobia, while as many others said it is just jealousy from our neighbours.

I can't say I know why Scott said what he said or why Mazembe subjected Pirates to such hell.

But we would be fooling ourselves if we think these events are unrelated and isolated.

For all our humility at the best of times, South Africa cannot help but throw its weight around, which irks a lot among our poorer neighbours. South Africa is like the snob next door who has all the toys and attracts jealousy.

Success attracts envy and that envy can manifest itself in hatred.

Conversely, success - assumed or real - can breed arrogance.

In spite of the fact that the state of California in the US is regarded as one of the biggest economies in the world (or at least it used to be, before former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did the Terminator on it), New Yorkers tend to think of themselves as the nation's first citizens.

As someone who was born and bred in Johannesburg, and has lived in Durban and Cape Town, I was often accused of having a big city chip on my shoulder.

Even if the accusations were not always fair, I suspect I also had some airs about myself as a member of that class that Pretoria citizens call "sphum'eJozi", loosely translated as those who hail from Johannesburg.

Author Jennifer Lee Carrell once said: "If you don't want the nickname, don't live up to it."

Unfortunately, many "sphum' eJozis" live up to the nickname because it is attractive to do so.

Although Scott's rantings may be dismissed as noise, we are not talking about an idiot here.

After all, the 68-year-old is Cambridge- and Oxford-educated and he is not a small-time politician seeking cheap publicity.

Nor are TP Mazembe a small team. They are an African powerhouse. Therefore, their treatment of Pirates can't be seen as a "mistake" committed by minnows.

South Africa sends aid to other parts of Africa, including peace-keeping troops, and we host important events like the World Cup. Because of this and other things, we feel we have earned the right to be loved unconditionally.

But this is the real world.

There was a time when South Africans were housed, loved and taken care of in Africa during the struggle. True. The context was different.

Even in my business travels on the continent I have been greeted with civility all over.

But this is the real world. This is not exile.

Greece and other small European economies that have been crying to countries like Germany to rescue them are grateful for the help, on the one hand, but detest their "big brother" on the other.

Obviously, Scott will apologise for his outburst and may even be censured by President Michael Sata.

One cannot really say whether the Confederation of African Football will do anything in the way of reining in TP Mazembe, but we can expect some overtures to Pirates and South Africa.

That notwithstanding, it would be particularly childish, perhaps even a bit stupid, for us to think that Scott and Mazembe are just exceptions to the rule.

South Africa - by far the richest country on the continent and one of the most politically stable, for now - is the envy of many of our neighbours, who, as Scott let it be known, accuse us of thinking that we are the superpower of Africa.

Truth be told, you look at the infrastructure here, the fiscus, the income per capita and access to the world that we enjoy on the whole, South Africa is the first nation of the developing world. And that is likely to attract begrudging respect - and some animosity.

Let me conclude with the words of the famous former US basketball player and coach John Robert Wooden: "Be more concerned with character than reputation. Character is what you are, reputation is what people think you are."

I honestly don't believe Scott's utterances or TP Mazembe's behaviour necessarily point to xenophobia. It just speaks to the reputation South Africa enjoys because of its character.

  • Mabote specialises in reputation management. Follow him on twitter @ramsmabote

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