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31 May 2008 00:00
The middle-aged Sierra Leonean spoke with consternation.
“I was in university with them.
They got free education and accommodation.
“I tell you, boy,” he tells a young Kenyan, with his index finger held high, “what is happening shows the failure of the older generation. They have failed to educate their young of the old days, when we helped them. I do not think there is an African English-speaking country that did not help South Africa fight apartheid.”
Then he looks down. “This is sad, very sad.”
A Gambian lawyer remembers how Mandela went round Africa to raise funds for the African National Congress and seeking opportunities for ANC cadres. “He was welcomed everywhere! I am off South African goods now; wine, SuperSport.”
“The World Cup?” I ask.
“Oh, don’t even think about it.”
Betrayal describes the general reaction to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Betrayal and disgust. Like Caesar, we turn in shock and slowly reach for the knife in our back, not quite feeling the pain yet. Slowly we look down to our bloodied fingers, then look up to our brother. “Et tu Brute?” And thus, the word “brutal” enters the English language, with fratricidal betrayal.
Long-held fears, justified or otherwise, about South African ignorance and disdain towards other Africans are being confirmed. “I flew from Jo’burg sitting next to an elderly South African to Dakar. On arrival,” the Gambian lawyer continues, “he turned to me and asked, ‘Is Dakar in Africa?’ I was too embarrassed to reply.” Then he notes matter-of-factly: “This is a man who started working as a professional in 1972!”
These were casual conversations on a hot Banjul afternoon in The Gambia. Africans have long feared that the oppression and seclusion of apartheid, and the superb success of the first decade of independence, have fostered in South Africans the feeling that they are not Africans. Africa is a place of war, famine, genocide, debilitating poverty. South Africans don’t quite see themselves as such. Theirs is not a fate akin to Africa’s.
“And I have fear that it will get worse under Zuma!” declares a Chadian who studied in Pretoria, in his Franglish. Again, a statement rather than question. Betrayal and acceptance. “I saw it coming,” says the Gambian woman, in resignation. Fed-up with the racism she has experienced in the West, she wants to do her master’s in Africa and had been considering options.
It is almost as if it was expected. In reacting to Kenya’s post-election violence, most Africans asked why and how. “Kenya of all places?” Clearly they had misconceived Kenya. For South Africa, the violence was unexpected; when it happened, it immediately made sense. Typically South African.
Although the attacks are deplorable to the grand majority of South Africans, the feeling is that xenophobia is not as rare. The murder of Somalis in Cape Town, the slow government response in enforcing the law and aiding the displaced, the fact that South Africa is actually letting the terrified displaced leave ... there has been more organisation to repatriate the displaced than to enforce the law. The attacks are being allowed to succeed!
“At the airport, they even have a column for ‘Africans’!” remembers the Chadian. “South African authorities are themselves xenophobic; the police, immigration.”
Many South Africans reading this would deny, even be angered such characterisation, yet it is how South Africa is viewed by the rest of Africa; Africa’s America, the Big Brother—incidentally a reality show introduced to many African countries by South African satellite TV—flexing its financial and political muscle, dominating African economies, imposing Western-like visa-processing systems on other Africans, and not allowing other Africans to share in the rainbow nation’s success.
A harsh indictment it may be, but the Africans that have visited South Africa almost invariably speak of it. Many quickly learn the word amakwerekwere and relay back home their new appellation.
Without a doubt, a serious and earnest introspection is imperative for South Africans. Poverty is terrible all over Africa and prices food and energy are rising globally. So these are not the cause. The “us-them” rhetoric has been long ignored. History, after all, is a broken record.
What other Africans just quite can’t understand about South African xenophobia, before and during the violence, is: Why us? Your fellow blacks?
Humphrey Sipalla writes in his personal capacity
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