A bumpy road trip

My road trip between Antananarivo and Fianarantsoa was interrupted to talk about President Jacob Zuma's insulting remarks about Malawian roads.

At the time highways, or the lack of them, were very much front and centre of my consciousness.

When Madagascar broke from the African continent, it took more than its fair share of mountains with it. So driving between the capital and the island's oldest city - and wine centre - requires negotiating a virtually incessant winding road.

It takes fully ten hours to cover the 500km distance. Very beautiful but terrifying.

At parts the road is poor. Those huge trucks that don't actually force one off the two-lane tarmac content themselves with tearing up the surface.

When the potholes get very bad, local children have taken to filling the broken areas with sand in the hope of picking up tips from passing drivers.

The difference between the Malagasy urchins and companies that will skim the top off South Africa's e-toll takings is simple. The island kids, who should really be in school, rely on the charity of strangers.

The toll road entrepreneurs will have special courts help them rake in profits - if government threats are to materialise.

So, if Zuma holds that we South Africans are not like Malawians, the same goes for Madagascar - and for every other country on the continent from A to Z.

There's an old Kenyan joke about a man swerving to avoid what he thought was a leopard in the road, only to find it was a giraffe that had fallen into a pothole.

Speaking to representatives here of many African countries monitoring Friday's election in Madagascar I get either stunned disbelief or outright anger.

They're from SADC, COMESA, the African Union and La Francophonie (that organisation I like to call the French-speaking Commonwealth).

Zuma's disparaging remarks about Malawi aside, they're horrified at his injunction to his compatriots not to think like Africans generally.

Like it or not South Africa is the continental leader. Economically and militarily it dwarfs other countries on the continent. It is not unlike Germany in Europe or the United States in the Americas.

It's inconceivable to expect Chancellor Angela Merkel saying something dismissive of Belgium or President Barack Obama be offhand about Belize.

We bear the cost of leadership and in return we expect things like being given Africa's permanent seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council, our diplomatic modesty notwithstanding.

Our president has an excellent background in mediating differences in South Africa's darkest days and in mending fences in other troubled countries of the continent.

One has to ask: what was he thinking?

_Jean-Jacques Cornish is EWN's Africa correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: _ @jjcornish