THERE has arisen an extensive discourse, and partly, literature, which speaks of the “end”, the “decline”, the “crisis”, the “decay” or at worst the “death” and, if anything, the “dearth” of African civilisation all mired in the loss of humanity.
However, despite the high sounding alarms that have been heralded in these discourses, one looks in vain for an analysis of the basic factors and processes underlying the socio-cultural, economic and political chaos obtaining across the entire continent of Africa as having given impetus to the brutality, murder and abuse we have witnessed in these past weeks in South Africa.
But shouldn’t it be characteristic of our period and our generation that “norms” and “truths” which were once believed to be “absolute’, “universal”, and “eternal” or those that were once accepted with blissful unawareness of their implications be questioned? Should a whole new generation continue on the mantra of “Pan-Africanism’, to the level of near “fetish” even when conditions on the ground demand that we re-engage the fact of the African national project and its condition? Is that not itself an epistemological loss or, at best, a paradigm lost if we entertained these solemnising discourses without a clear introspection?
Come now; let us reason together, we are bidden by the men and women of the cloth through their religious narrative–the bible. But the fact of blackness, again, is in question–in particular, that of our humanity.
Seeing these, one imagines, Frantz Fanon’s predictions coming to haunt us! However, one thing stands out — it is that the fact of our blackness should not be put up for trial at every moment when an event threatens to shatter one’s hope in humanity.
Neither should the fact of our being, nor our ontology; it shouldn’t be juxtaposed along the lines of argumentation that says; “… we are doing this to one another because Africans always do, or that Africans have no value for life.”
No! I refuse to accept that. Violence is violence, I argue, whether interpolated or otherwise, it remains at the centre of humanity, and it should be abhorred for what it is without typifying it on the basis of one’s ontology.
The violence of the blackman against another is no different from the violence of the whiteman against another whiteman, as we saw in that brutal conflict between the Serbs and Croats; two Slavic peoples with similar languages. When conflict erupted, in one of the most violent scenes in the post-Second World War, no one questioned the fact of the whiteman’s humanity, let alone their ontology. So why should that of a blackman be raised? Why should it even be seen within the lenses of “Afrophobia” or other such terrible concepts?
While this is definitely an important call for engagement some other time, it is not the object of my input this time around. The thrust of my engagement is to turn the seemingly resoundingly solemnising voices and Pan-African arguments on their heads. The aim being simple — to raise a few unsettling issues and questions. So let me begin!
More often as human beings we tend to focus on the actual events as they occur and we do not give ourselves time to reflect on the underlying causes. I have already heard some people labelling what is happening in South Africa as Afrophobia, Xenophobia, etc. But the issue is not what it is turning out to be. Rather, it is hinged on those underlying factors that no one is prepared to confront and unpack.
For example, if I may, we have to ask ourselves, why is it that those foreigners who are mainly being attacked are blacks? Put differently, why is it that those foreigners who are being attacked, at least, most of them, are actually from different parts of Africa? Is there something wrong with the entire African continent, or is there something wrong with South Africa?
Having said that, I must first make it clear, that I see the brutality that’s been circulated in the social networks — especially the cold blooded murder of those innocent children that I saw on social networks like WhatsApp and Facebook as very appalling and senseless. However, we must seek to understand the underlying causes as the most important narratives giving impetus to these issues.
These clearly exclusionary voices that are challenging migrants to leave foreign lands are not peculiar to the continent of Africa. In fact, we are having them louder and more violent in Europe. It’s just that the media is not showing it. In the UK there was BNP which clearly called for the removal of blacks from UK. Now there is UKIP openly stating that “Britain for the British”.
It remains a fact that in any state like we see here in Europe, when economies shrink, the impact is felt more by locals who begin to apportion themselves a sense of entitlement. Look at the upsurge of ultra-Right wing movements across Europe. Lest we forget, when Anders Brevik gunned down those innocent children in Norway, his explanation was that their parents in the left movement were too accommodative to foreigners. It was clearly xenophobic but the white Western world decided to frame and interpret it as a product of a lone psychotic gunman.
Also another factor is the fact of heightened nationalism — what in South Africa they call the “Proudly South African” mindset. It must be remembered that when one says they are “proudly South African”, they, in fact, are acknowledging the existence of the excluded “other” who is not South African. So when nationalism transmutates into high feelings of patriotism, coupled with major economic challenges, locals turn to those they consider foreigners.
This happens also because they are in proximity. Like in any situation of ethnic relations; ethnic groups that are closer in terms of proximity to each other tend to have more conflict and chances of conflict than those that are far from each other.
This, to a certain extent, explains why we tend to see blacks attacking each other in South Africa, yet there are white foreign nationals but they are not being attacked.
It is an issue of the “poor turning on the poor”. Put crudely, it can be characterised as the “broke-on-broke” violence! The tendency is for locals to turn against those foreigners in proximity they perceive as taking away their menial jobs.
The Nigerians did it to the Ghanaians during that xenophobic campaign that was dubbed as “Ghana Must Go” in 1983, following an ultimatum issued by the then President, Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari that all foreigners should leave Nigeria within two weeks — failure of which the government will arrogate powers to every Nigerian citizen to deal with them. Thousands of Ghanaians and other foreigners were brutalised by the same Nigerians who now claim Africa belongs to everyone.
Coming closer home, in Zimbabwe, the 1980s witnessed the worst brutality and massacre of the Ndebele who were dubbed as foreigners in the land of their forefathers during Gukurahundi which culminated into genocide.
The running narrative at the time was that “Ndebeles must go back to South Africa were they came from”. The same happened to the Somali of Garissa, in Kenya, when brutalised in a genocide by Jomo Kenyatta and labelled as foreigners.
That is the sad story of Africa — the list is endless! But it is quite sombre and sad!
In the UK, the major discourse on immigration as we prepare for elections is how the next leadership should deal with foreigners and even to curb the influx of foreign nationals. So the economic factor is a big issue. Having said that, let me turn to the case of South Africa, with a view to drawing more parallels on this issue and also attempt to address some of the questions I asked earlier.
The influx of foreign nationals in South Africa, mainly from other African countries remains noticeable and is a product of the deep-seated problems those African nationals are facing in their own countries.
Here we are reminded of the escalating numbers of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean sea trying to cross from West Africa; thus causing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the African Union Chief to trenchantly put it that, “… African leaders need to do more to stop these tragedies.”
Take the case of Zimbabweans, as an example — the current political situation in the country and the one preceding it has never been helpful. If anything, it has remained a major push factor. But all these, as push factors, do not preclude the fact that the South African economy has faced a huge knock, with unemployment rate conservatively pegged between 25,5%-36%.
Let me hasten to add that the economic challenges South Africa is facing are not due to the influx of foreign nationals. They are a product of the global economic trends that started in the West. And so, countries in the Global South are even feeling it harder, as there is not much economic growth. Even worse, the kind of political intransigence in countries like Zimbabwe coupled with poor policies is not helping matters for their nationals in the region.
As a result local South Africans seeing their government failing to come up with clearly defined service provision policies, employment policies, and immigration policies have taken it upon themselves to vent their frustrations on foreign nationals. It is quite sad, however, that as they vent their frustrations foreign nationals become their chief and easy targets.
Still the explanation is that foreign nationals are being targeted for being seen as competitors for the few menial jobs and other simple tasks that South Africans feel should be theirs.
It remains a fact that as one crosses from one corner of Johannesburg to the other, even those begging at the traffic lights; some blind people and some selling cheap wares, as pseudo-beggars, are foreign nationals. The tendency by locals when faced with such a situation is to vent their frustration on those people.
I will explain this tending culture of violence later. But for now let me conclude by observing that I have heard the voices of people arguing that South Africans should be grateful for what the rest of Africa did for them during the struggle against apartheid.
Well and fine, but that argument presupposes that when one helps you to build your house they then should set theirs on fire and come and turn yours into their permanent place of dwelling, even when you have your own issues to deal with.
It remains a fact that South Africa is not heaven on earth — therefore, it has its own problems. And Zimbabweans, for example, cannot continue to pretend that they do not realise the source of their problems — which is Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF party. Zimbabweans have to confront their problems at home, and cause finality to them.
Even the protests by some Zimbabwean MPs and self-proclaimed activists at the South African Embassy, in Harare and elsewhere are misdirected. People should go to State House to protest. They must confront Robert Mugabe and his band of thugs for putting the country and the economy to shame, and thus forcing millions of people to cross the border in search of cheap jobs.
The same should be done by other African nationals. We cannot keep shouting at the South Africans who are also feeling the pinch of the global economic meltdown, yet keeping a blind view of the problems we have to confront in our home countries.
I even find the view by a number of African governments who are threatening South African businesses quite appalling because it is them (African leaders) who have pushed us out of our own countries.
It’s high time leaders like Robert Mugabe and others remove the speck in their eyes and face this sobering truth — that no matter how they may appear as vanguards of human rights, in this instance, they carry the lion’s share of blame for the blood of the innocent people that are being brutalised in South Africa.
Dr Brilliant Mhlanga is an academic and Human Rights activist