THE very first Pan-African Conference was held in the city of London in July in the year 1900. This was the very beginning of the last century.
It was for the first time in history that black people had gathered from all corners of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and to organise so that they might take an equal place among nations. That was 115 years ago.
The conference was called primarily to appeal to the European and American leaders to fight against racism, to grant colonies in Africa and the West Indies the right to self-determination and the granting of political and other rights to the African-Americans.
The main message of this conference was carried in the resolution entitled Address to the Nations of the World. This resolution was drafted by W.E.B. Du Bois, a well-known African-American scholar and civil rights activist. Inspired by this resolution he had drafted, Du Bois was to later coin a sentence and a thought that gave meaning to anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles throughout the entire 20th century. This is what he said: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea”
This brilliant assertion by Du Bois formed the mantra for national liberation struggles and the struggle against discrimination in many countries in Asia, Africa and the islands of the sea. Although Du Bois somehow later reviewed and expanded his concept of “the colour line”, especially after he visited Germany and Poland before and after the 2nd World War, where he realised that discrimination and oppression are not necessarily globally defined in terms of the black and white race, nonetheless his proposition of the “colour line” remained paramount in describing the anti-colonial struggles in Africa in the 20th century.
That was certainly the case with the liberation struggle in my own country South Africa. The colour line, the relation of the darker to the lighter race constituted the national definition of that struggle right up to the last decade of the 20th century.
As we entered the 21st century, we the leaders in our continent began to talk boldly about this century being the African century, the century of the African Renaissance.
We boldly talked of the African giant that is rising. The fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 meant to Africa that the last problem of the colour line, the last problem of the relation of the darker to the lighter races was now about to be buried. By the way, 1994 was only six years before the end of the 20th century which Du Bois had so articulately defined.
Of course as we all know, the struggle for the right to self-determination is not necessarily over in the African continent as long as we continue to have on the agenda of the African Union and the United Nations the unfulfilled right of the Saharawi people in Western Sahara to self-determination and freedom.
Recently, the concept of the colour line, both in its original narrow sense as well in its revised and expanded sense came back to my mind. It came back rushing at meas I watched in social and electronic media, in print and television, very ugly and atrocious scenes of my own fellow beloved African brothers, sisters and their children being attacked, displaced and at times killed in my own beloved country by my own beloved fellow citizens.
I saw that also happening to my fellow Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and so on in my own beloved country, South Africa. It pained me like it pained many South Africans.
Du Bois concept of the colour line also came back to me as I watched the graphics of my fellow beloved African migrants drowning and perishing in their thousands in the Mediterranean Sea running away from their own brothers and sisters, largely running from their own colour line.
This concept also comes rushing at me as I watch thousands of innocent African bodies being blown apart in vicious fratricidal wars in certain regions of the African continent, fuelled not by the colour line of the darker as against the lighter race, but by the colour line of ethnicity, religion, arrogance, corruption and bigoted politics. Wars conducted by the same colour line against its own.
Du Bois comes rushing at me as I watch in excess of a million fellow African refugees, both political and economic refugees, who are displaced across the African continent and beyond by the actions of their own fellow colour line.
Du Bois recently came rushing at me as I watched racial bonfires and lockdowns in Missouri and Baltimore.
In response to the recent flare up of attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa, my government convened a series of meetings in order to better understand the root cause of these attacks. These meetings included the South African local communities involved, the organisations and communities of foreign nationals who were affected, local municipalities, business leaders especially small business traders, religious leaders, local chiefs, etc.
My government came out of those meetings and reasserted the fact that none of the many root causes that were mentioned in those meetings justifies the attacks on the foreign nationals. The government condemned in the strongest of terms these attacks and committed itself to fight them now and in the future. It also came out of those meetings better informed about a series of factors that contribute to the tensions which tend to boil over into violence.
In as much as there are a number of factors that contribute to the tension, the most fundamental of them all is the struggle for access to limited scarce economic resources and opportunities.
The government came to the conclusion that South Africans are not rabid xenophobes who go around hating and beating up foreign nationals. It is for that reason that the recent demonstrations against the attacks attracted record numbers of South Africans across the country. The government concluded that there are genuine concerns that have been raised by local communities that the government cannot ignore and will have to address, politically, economically and by necessary legislation.
What is important is that most of those concerns revolve around access to limited and scarce resources mainly for the poor. That is why there are no such attacks among the middle classes of our population. These attacks happen on the margins of economic activity. It is all fundamentally about the economy.
If I were to be liberal and quote one of Bill Clinton’s campaign slogans, I can say: “It is the economy, stupid!”
Part of the real reasons why we have such an overwhelming influx of immigrants into South Africa is because of the opportunities, real or perceived. And I cannot blame them for that.
The South African economy remains the most developed and the most diversified in the African continent.
It is also important to underline that such attacks on foreign nationals is not only confined to South Africa. We have seen it rearing its ugly head in a number of fellow African countries over the decades. In South Africa, given the continental footprint of our 24-hour news services SABC, ENCA, ANN7 and CNBC AFRICA, also given the leadership role the continent expects from South Africa, as well as the big count of refugees that reside in the country, such developments immediately become household news across the continent and the world.
This is a position that South Africa should be thankful for because it is also the demonstration of the advances we have made as a country in developing the media industry and the media space as well as in opening our democracy and our society. In the same vein it helps to keep us on our toes because we know the continent is always watching us 24/7 like some Big Brother Africa. That can only be good for the exercise of democracy.
During the recent Sadc extraordinary summit, President Jacob Zuma requested the summit for the opportunity to brief his colleagues in order to explain what had happened, what measures the government had taken and what the government intends to do in the future to try to put in place measure to prevent the repeat of this occurrence and to try to remove the known causes of the tensions. He also took that opportunity to clarify some misconceptions that were going around in the media and the public at large.
In response the Sadc leaders thanked him for the brief and joined him and his government as well as the majority of South Africans in condemning the attacks. Sadc leaders also took upon themselves to say the problem of these attacks is not the problem of President Zuma or his government alone.
They indicated that they also take part of the responsibility given the fact that they need to move with speed to ensure the development of their own economies as well as the stability of their societies so as to ensure that there is no inequitable and unwarranted influx of immigrants into South Africa from the other countries in the region. Indeed, they underlined the fact that the focus of the summit, that of industrialisation and integration, was an attempt to precisely work towards that objective.
President Robert Mugabe, at the invitation of President Zuma, undertook a very successful state visit to South Africa from the April 7-9 2015. The primary aim of the visit was to establish what we call in South Africa a Bi-National Commission for Corporation. It is the highest state-to-state bilateral political and economic relation of corporation that South Africa enters into with another country.
The commission will be hosted on an alternative basis annually between the two countries, co-chaired by the two Heads of State. That was again a concrete demonstration of South Africa’s commitment to strengthen relations between the two fraternal countries.
In that context I am pleased to note that South Africa’s exhibition at the recent Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, for the fourth year running, achieved the 1st prize for the best international exhibitor. Again this is our demonstration of the commitment to promote our economic relations.
In conclusion, I want to say that the struggle for self-determination that Du Bois and his colleagues called for in Africa 115 years ago has largely been achieved except for the Saharawi people in Western Sahara, whose struggle must continue. So for Africa in this 21st century, our current conditions and challenges have to enrich Du Bois concept of the colour line, beyond the colour line in relation of the darker to the lighter races as if we do not have the hard-won African self-determination in our hands. Africa’s ownership of her self-determination gives us the anchor and the armour to tackle every other colour line.
The real challenge for Africa today is the need to industrialise, to integrate our economies, to transform our economies in line with the demographics of our societies, to secure a respectable position amongst the developing and developed economies of the world, to work together to positively transform multilateral institutions, to educate our people, to build and defend our democracies, to fight corruption and to promote healthy citizens and healthy habitats. That is the colour line that defines the challenge for Africa in the 21st century.
It is only if we do these things that we can prevent the scourge of diseases in our continent, that we can prevent the waves of refugees, political and economic, flowing in huge numbers across the tragic borders, across dark forests infested by the deadly beasts of the jungle, across the treacherous seas, that we can minimise the temptation for the fratricidal wars within and between our societies. Only then can we say the struggle for self-determination has fully achieved the trajectory of its course.
Like Mandela said, “I dream of an Africa which is at peace with itself.”
Mavimbela is South African Ambassador to Zimbabwe.