Are South Africans 'backward'? Zambia's white VP says so.

In an unfiltered interview with the Guardian last week, Zambian Vice President Guy Scott had fighting words for the continent's economic powerhouse. Now Pretoria is demanding an explanation. 

•A version of this post ran on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.

South Africa is much more developed than its neighbors in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Economically, it dominates the entire region. Apartheid South Africa regularly intervened militarily outside its borders during the struggle against the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements, thereby highlighting their neighbors’ weaknesses.

A consequence of South Africa’s disproportionate power and influence is that today it is often resented by other Southern African nations. Occasionally this breaks out into the open.

That happened in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London when, upon returning to Lusaka, Zambian Vice President Guy Scott publicly compared South African president Jacob Zuma to F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid South African head of state, according to The Guardian.

But he did not stop there. He also said South Africans are “arrogant.” Further warming to his subject, he continued: “The South Africans are very backward in terms of historical development.… I hate South Africans. That’s not a fair thing to say because I like a lot of South Africans but 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 that South Africa’s blacks model themselves on white behavior now that they are in power. Saying out loud what many Africans say only after a few drinks, he continued, “I dislike South Africa for the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States, I think. It’s just too big and too unsubtle.”

He also denounced South African membership in the BRICS, a major policy initiative of President Jacob Zuma.

“Nobody would want to go in for a partnership with Brazil, China, India, and South Africa for Christ’s sake.” He concluded with a bouquet for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, telling the Guardian, “I’m sure any good African nationalist admires Mugabe.” He also said that Mugabe would like to retire from the presidency.

The South African government says it is demanding an explanation for the remarks from the Zambian high commissioner in Pretoria. In contrast, Zimbabwe is playing down the incident, commenting publicly that Mugabe is “close” to Scott and Zambian president Michael Sata. Zimbabwe insists that it will not allow “the media” to shape the Zambia/Zimbabwe bilateral relationship.

The immediate cause of Scott’s ire appears to have been Mr. Zuma’s maneuvering over Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections in his capacity as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) designated mediator. While Zuma is ostensibly operating with the mandate of SADC, of which Zambia is a part, in Mr. Scott’s view the South African president is trying to keep the other SADC states out.

Scott is hardly a typical southern African politician. Born in 1944, he is of Anglo-Scottish origin with a degree from Cambridge. However, his father was involved in anti-colonial journalism and Scott has liberation credentials. He is a fierce critic of white racism in southern Africa. He compared fellow students at a school he attended as a youth in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as having the attitudes of the Hitler Youth. Scott, also a journalist like his father, established an important agribusiness and later served as the Zambian Minister of Agriculture. He became vice president in 2011.

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