Tuesday, 1 February 2011

On being a colonial power

During December, I traveled to both Windhoek and Gaborone and was struck both times by the overwhelming South African economic presence. Every shop, every restaurant, even the brands of milk on the shelves, were South African. My country apparently owns quite a bit of the rest of the continent. This makes me somewhat uncomfortable. As much as the economy of South Africa might benefit from this, and in turn benefit me, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with being part of the exploitation of everyone else. 

Then, a few days ago, I came across this article on ThisIsAfrica. The article discusses the expansion of South African business into Africa from a business perspective. The conclusion is that expansion into Africa is good for South African business, that if we don't hurry up countries like China will steal all the good opportunities and that it is a little perplexing that the South African government doesn't seem to be pushing this agenda. 

Today, On My Way highlights one of the downsides of South African expansion into Africa: rampant environmental degradation that would simply never be allowed at home. The trouble with South African companies going into the rest of Africa is that they have sufficient economic power to exploit people, resources and the environment with little regard for the consequences. One of the reasons often given by economists for South Africa's limited growth in the past 15 years is that the country has strict limitations at least on labour and resource exploitation (sadly, we're not doing as well on the environment but this still wouldn't be likely). Companies won't have those limitations on the rest of the continent.

South Africa has tried to present itself as a leader in democracy, peaceful resolution of conflicts and human rights on the continent. NEPAD, the African Renaissance Fund, the African Peer Review and our numerous peace-keeping missions to various African countries are all about us being the 'good guys' on the continent. With massive inequality, huge unemployment and a growing health bill thanks to the ravages of HIV, it seems unlikely that South Africa will have the moral and political will to reign in our growing economic exploitation in line with this agenda. But hey, we're starting an Aid Agency, so maybe it'll all be okay.  

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