So they have all arrived.
President Barak Obama at their head, the statesmen and women of the world have come to pay their respects to the man to whom none can hold a candle. Until Nelson Mandela is finally laid to rest in his home village of Qunu the world’s attention is on our country. South Africans of all races have so far behaved with enormous dignity. The world will watch the nation mourn in prayer and song. Those who view these events on television or in the stadia will remember these events for the rest of their lives.
But then the spotlight will move on, as it always does. The assassination of Kennedy and the accident that took the life of Princess Diana were global events, but gradually faded in the popular imagination.
Where will South Africa be when this happens?
The real danger is that the center of gravity in Africa is moving northwards. When I first worked on the continent in the late 1970’s most major British newspapers had three Africa correspondents in Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg, as well as a bureau in Cairo. Today most have just one. So where to base it?
The decision of CCTV to operate out of Kenya is indicative. South Africa is too far from most major events. Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo are the real foci of attention in East Africa. West Africa needs covering too, but often the media will use local stringers.
And its not just the media.
Few now refer to South Africa as the economic “gateway to Africa.” Companies looking for lucrative fields of investment are putting their cash into Angola, Ghana, Ethiopia or Kenya. South Africa’s mines received their initial capital more than a century ago. The factories are still productive but labour is seen as too difficult to control and too expensive to pay.
Apartheid was a story that captured the world’s attention. In Mandela the country had a leader who stood head and shoulders above others. But when he is finally laid to rest, why should the international community take South Africa seriously, when it is led by men like Jacob Zuma?
The real danger is that South Africa will gradually fade from global concerns, no longer a really important hub of economic, cultural and intellectual activity on the African continent. This is no prediction, but rather a warning. South Africans cannot assume an exceptionalism that must be constantly renewed.