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We’re complicit in our own exploitation

Ever since I moved to Kenya, each year another horror story comes out about an East African citizen abused and sometimes killed while working in near slave conditions in the Middle East. And each year East African citizens react with anger on social media and in conversation until something else comes up.

Each year in Southern Africa, stories are told of parents who have fallen into debt and sold their last cattle to pay for a son or daughter’s university fees — only for the graduate to spend years looking for a job worth their qualifications or, as happened in South Africa last year, have to humiliate themselves at traffic lights to advertise their qualifications before they can be hired.

Annually in the Mediterranean, West Africans — and often people from Central and East Africa — drown while trying to cross to the Eldorado that is Europe and we all react with horror until something more horrific comes up. Towards the end of last year we again had the same collective outrage when we saw videos of sub-Saharan Africans being treated like subhumans in North Africa.

My good friends’ mother, Prudence Matima, asked: “Hello my Naija friends: What is actually happening in Nigeria that’s making youth leave the country illegally in droves and end up all over the world? We are saddened by this Libyan slavery issue.” As I would reply to her, it is not a uniquely Nigerian problem but one that this whole continent is grappling with.

If not curbed, it is only a matter of time before South Africa joins the exodus. Perhaps, I would like to suggest, this is because in our outrage we are failing to put the blame squarely where it belongs: on our political leaders, our business leaders and ourselves.

Examples abound.

The new president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has declared Zimbabwe open for business. He has also talked of changing the indigenisation law so that foreign businesses investing in Zimbabwe will not have to adhere to local partners having 51% of the deal. All this to attract “external investors” even when the external investors never say what their social contract with citizens is.

And it is not just Zimbabwe. A version of this story duplicates itself in the East African giant nation that is Kenya, where the Chinese have built a railway at an astronomical price, which they were to have run for five years but will now run for 10 years — with locals being given only the most menial jobs. In our continent’s biggest economy, Nigeria, citizens are removed from ancestral land so that “external investors” can drill for oil without regard to the people and the environment. In South Africa, this narrative plays out in the Lonmin company where the ANC’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a nonexecutive member of its board; his company, Shanduka, was a minority shareholder in the platinum producer. “External investors” have not kept their social contract with the people of Marikana. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Joseph Kabila refuses to step down, using the excuse of keeping the nation “stable” for investors — killing those objecting to his staying on.

All this is happening as regional bodies and the European Union-funded, Chinese-building-friendly African Union keeps quiet — yet speaks about the sovereignty of African nations. What a laugh.

It is worth questioning whether the same European, Asian and American nations that push for us to relax our labour laws at the expense of our own people do the same for African investors. The answer is, of course, no.

It is still easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for an African company to open a branch in Europe and — when they do — there are labour laws favouring European citizens.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and other African politicians who seek healthcare in Europe, North America or Asia have obviously decided they feel no shame when they are admitted to hospitals abroad and come across African doctors whom they could not pay enough so they could stay home. They are not embarrassed when their children are taught abroad by African academics who had to leave their homes just to live comfortably.

And then there is us. The masses, the povo, the wananchi, the Wanjikus and Ngozis. We have been complicit in getting some of our best brains to leave because we do not hold business and political leaders accountable.

We have also been complicit in the enslavement, rape, drowning and deaths of other Africans as they seek to cross over to what they perceive to be greener pastures.

This year, Zimbabwe is holding national elections. Perhaps instead of Zimbabweans celebrating that their new first lady, Auxillia Mnangagwa, donated food and sanitary towels to women inmates and their children at Chikurubi prison in Harare on Christmas Day, they should be asking why this is not a basic provision for prisoners anyway.

Next year, Nigeria will hold presidential elections. In her excellent elections memoir Love Does Not Win Elections, Ayisha Osori recounts how bribes were expected in Nigerian elections before she could have an audience with people. Perhaps instead of being content with minor bribes of foodstuffs from politicians, the Nigerian electorate should be asking where the politicians and their children seek education and healthcare.

South Africa is also holding national elections next year. Perhaps before we elect Ramaphosa because “Mandela liked him”, let us ask him whether the people in Marikana have the 5 000 homes they were promised and whether fees have truly fallen for the poorer citizens.

Let us ask Ramaphosa, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema to prove that they can live on the monthly minimum wage that they are okay with domestic workers getting before they can have our votes. And, equally important, let us hold companies that use our fathers and mothers as cheap labour accountable for not adhering to labour laws. The fact of the matter is, alleged investors need our resources more than we need them. We need to know this.

For citizens of countries that are not having elections, there is always civil disobedience, including boycotts, of companies that refuse to comply with labour laws.

In 2018, let us resist being victims on our continent when we have the power of numbers. Let us not be complicit in our graduates not having jobs, our parents being exploited and our siblings risking death running away from home. Let us love ourselves enough to demand basic rights.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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