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SHAME ON SOUTH AFRICA!


By Said Adejumobi

 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008.

 

lived in South Africa for two years. I was a research and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town. I was fortunate to be in South Africa at that moment and also in that university. This is because that was a period in which there was an intellectual battle over the soul and direction of the South African project through the nature of knowledge production and consumption.

 

The University of Cape Town is an excellent university with the best knowledge infrastructure on the continent.

But the university at that point was the hotbed of the struggle to restructure knowledge production in South Africa. Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda scholar - now at Columbia University - led the struggle to change the curriculum on Africa in the university from apartheid based, to a post-apartheid Africa focused one. Mamdani's close allies and associates including the late C.S.L Chachage, a professor of sociology (from Tanzania) joined the fray in the battle.

 

But we lost the battle; South Africa was unprepared for change. In the absence of change, apartheid will assume another form and shape; black on black violence will deepen; and the psychology of domination will recreate itself. This is the whole talk about xenophobia in South Africa.

 

For any discerning mind, what is happening now in South Africa is predictable. I saw it coming, and I left South Africa when I did. I recall informing my students, "South Africa is a country on the edge; it may implode from within". Without reshaping the curriculum on Africa; without decolonising the minds of the people; without owning up and admitting the historical role played by other African countries in South Africa's liberation struggle, South Africans rarely know who they are and where they are coming from.

 

Beyond mere cliches of the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), and some cadres in the South African liberation movement, majority of South Africans especially the blacks do not see themselves as Africans.

 

When they comment on Africa, they refer to "you people from Africa". The mindset created under apartheid is that Africa is a jungle, where people are beasts, hungry and hopeless. The mindset remains unchanged and South Africans especially blacks don't want to identify with this.

Coming from a history of denial and deprivation, South African blacks don't want to associate with those who have a semblance of their perceived former image; those who are deprived and hopeless.

 

They therefore see themselves differently, and far better than other Africans. They often tend to compare themselves with Europeans and Americans, with little or no African identity. This is the basis of the resentment, which they now call xenophobia.

 

Winnie Mandela is right when she laid the blame of the attack on fellow blacks from other African countries on the doorstep of the government given its failure to deliver on the long promises of political liberation; but this is only one part of the story, not the full story. Poverty and affluence live side by side in South Africa. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the World that I have ever seen. What I call "Mainland" Cape Town is far better than the city of Paris or London. But that is how far it goes.

 

On the other side of 'mainland' Cape Town is "cape town the ghetto"- these are the townships. "Cape Town the ghetto' is worse than any slum I have ever seen in my life. I saw about five families all with children living in a single room. People sleep under the bed, in the corridor, kitchen etc. It is the most wicked and inhuman condition any human soul can live in. It is worse than Mushin, Ajegunle or any other slum in Lagos, Nigeria.

 

Political liberation has done nothing to change their lives.

The media manipulation in South Africa is to heap the blame of the condition of the poor South African blacks on foreigners mainly blacks from other African countries. They are depicted as job snatchers, criminals, drug pushers, crooks, etc. They are basically criminalised. Every non-South African black is seen as a job migrant, who has come to deny job to a Black South African.

 

The stage was set for a conflagration. There were cases in which people were thrown off the moving train and killed. The media and the government call it xenophobia; but I call criminality. Criminality was tolerated and inadvertently promoted to deflect the condition of the country, and explain off its inadequacies.

 

Mahmood Mamdani was fond of saying that South Africa is a poor country. Many South Africans detest it. His argument is that there is a tiny minority that is very rich, and affluent, while the majority of the people live in abject poverty unparallelled in any other African country. If the wealth of the nation is aggregated, their living standard will fall, and South Africa may not be better than many other African countries. The result of the warning signal being flagged by Mamdani is what is unfolding in South Africa today.

 

The structural dimension to the attack on people from other African countries by South African blacks is in two directions. First, the knowledge system is trapped in the legacies of apartheid, and as such black South Africans hardly appreciate the richness of African history and culture, hence the need to have changed mindset towards their fellow Africans.

 

The immediate step every African country took after decolonisation was to reshape the curriculum and rewrite their history. This in some cases involved importing scholars from other African countries to assist in the project. This was never to happen in South Africa. The effect is that the apartheid social construction of Africa and black identity is what still resonates in the minds of many South African blacks.

 

Unfortunately, people who volunteered to help South Africa achieve transformation in the educational sector never got the kind of political support needed from the South African political leadership including the ANC.

 

The second structural dimension to the attack on fellow black Africans is the orgy of self-denial which South Africa's political leadership and the ANC are engaged in. Hardly is the correct story of the liberation struggle told publicly to South African citizens. What is often told is a story of self-victory. The role played by other African countries is hardly mentioned and South African middle class elite (including the media) are fond of saying, "we do not owe other African countries anything". Of course, they do.

 

I recall that when Julius Nyerere died (I was in South Africa then), he was depicted in the media in a very negative sense. Headlines like the "tyrant is gone" replete media stories on him. This is highly unfortunate. Julius Nyerere was one of the most steadfast leaders on South Africa's liberation struggle - committed his country's scarce resources, diplomatic strength and military support for the ANC. Nyerere was not to be celebrated but vilified. This is the one of the gains of self-denial.

 

Nigeria was one of the frontline states and participated actively in South Africa's liberation struggle. Our resources, foreign policy, diplomatic strength and entire citizens commitment were put behind our South African brothers and sisters. I recall as a university undergraduate, I contributed money and participated in anti-apartheid campus movements. Our soul was with our South African brethren, is this our reward for supporting South Africa's liberation?

 

Today, South Africa is benefiting more than any other African country in the African integration project. South African companies, like MTN are abroad in many African countries making super profit, but South Africans are attacking the citizens of those countries in South Africa.

 

There is no recorded case of either a South African citizen or company being maltreated in any other African country. South Africa must of necessity reciprocate the gesture and good will of other African countries, even if it chooses to tell the story of the anti-apartheid struggle differently.

 

The South African government must act and act fast in ensuring that other African citizens are not molested and attacked in South Africa. The current attacks are definitely unacceptable and condemnable. Mbeki's African renaissance should not be about his people killing other African citizens; Pan-Africanism will not stand in the face of the current onslaught on other Africans. Mbeki, Zuma and other leaders of the ANC must act, and act fast!

 

Adejumobi lives in Lagos. A copy of this piece appeared in The Guardian (Lagos).

 

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