Post 1994, SA rode a wave of global goodwill. We took advantage of it, pulling in billions in foreign investment and establishing a substantial tourism industry. That legacy gifted us membership of the G20 and the Brics group of nations, despite being economically insignificant compared with others under those acronyms. We have punched above our weight for many years. It has lulled us into a belief that the rest of the world cares about our interests.
It was a rude shock when SA and several of our neighbours were hit by global irrationality. The UK’s red-listing has destroyed a vitally needed tourist season by requiring all those returning to the UK to quarantine in government-controlled hotels at great expense. Canada’s refusal to accept SA-generated polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests is an insult to the quality of medical science in the country (though partly reversed now for Canadian citizens). President Cyril Ramaphosa has loudly and angrily declared these decisions irrational and in violation of international agreements made through the G20 to protect international tourism.
Theorists of international relations might posit that we are seeing a resurgence of realism in how the world treats SA. Countries are singularly concerned with their own interests and use their power accordingly. SA produces just 0.37% of global GDP, down from a democratic-era peak of 0.45% in 2008, giving it little to no power in confronting other nations for actions that harm its interests. Realist perspectives dismiss compassion for others’ suffering in state decisions, and certainly don’t acknowledge complicity in underdevelopment via colonialism.
Analysts from critical traditions see sheer racism in it. They can point to disgraceful media coverage, like the blatantly racist cartoon in Spanish newspaper La Tribuna de Albacete showing an SA-flagged boat arriving at European shores laden with brown-skinned coronaviruses with fat lips. The German newspaper Die Rheinpfalz showed a picture of poor black people under a headline “The Virus from Africa is with us”. The Bangkok Post headlined a story on efforts to trace 783 visitors from southern African countries “Government hunts for African visitors”. Can we be surprised that governments can arbitrarily impose damaging restrictions on countries whose only common feature is that most of their populations are black? While all three of these newspapers apologised (though not always fulsomely) their actions indicate how easily racist tropes can be rolled out.
Ramaphosa’s responses to these foreign hostilities were surprisingly strident on Twitter, declaring it “hypocrisy of the worst order” asking “where is science? These countries have always said to us that we should base our decisions on science. But when the time comes for them to apply it to themselves, they do not, but resort to their own self-interest.” It is with no sense of irony that SA has found itself lecturing the West on the importance of sticking to the science.
So far, the UK has not budged on its red-listing of 11 African countries. Domestic politics is certainly playing a role, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson eager for any distraction from the conflagration engulfing him. As he has personally shown many times, stoking a hornet’s nest of racism can shore up his support. A review of travel restrictions is due on December 20, by which time Omicron will probably be the dominant strain in the UK and the ridiculous 10-day quarantine rule will be obviously pointless — and have done absolutely nothing to inhibit the spread of the variant.
Ramaphosa has done well to stridently call out the hypocrisy. The travel restrictions are a serious blight to the SA economy with the UK traditionally the largest source market of high-spending tourists. Tourism and hospitality are important economic segments because they absorb unskilled labour and are biased towards women, helping to undo the structural challenges of our labour market.
The UK remains one of our largest trading partners and there are extensive economic links between the two countries, built (for good and ill) over centuries. The treatment of SA meted out by the Johnson government is certainly going to weaken those relations, both as businesses (including my own) find it difficult to work between the two countries, and as political and diplomatic tensions rise.
SA must box clever to get out of this predicament. It can use moral suasion and the embers of its global exceptionalism to embarrass foreign governments for their behaviour, but it must keep an eye on the realist analysis.
SA simply doesn’t have the power to bend foreign governments to its will. It must pull diplomatic levers, demand co-ordinated and rational international responses to new variants. It can attempt to influence domestic sentiment, borrowing lessons from the anti-apartheid movement, by keeping the impact of such behaviour in the domestic press. But it also must manage the consequences at home — a decimated tourist industry in need of support to survive until such time as tourists can start visiting again.
• Theobald is chair of research-led consulting house Intellidex
This article first appeared in Business Day