We were separated by colonial borders and lost our ubuntu

Africans must decolonise their minds of internalised colonial mindsets and frameworks because these have erased cultural values such as ubuntu. #BlackLivesMatter ought to extend beyond the borders of the United States. That begins with Africans treating each other’s lives as if they matter.

Xenophobia is an irrational fear of the other. Afrophobia is the irrational fear of a specific other. For many South Africans, it is very often the irrational fear of fellow Africans. South Africa is notorious for xenophobic violence against refugees and immigrants, notably the 2008, 2015 and 2019 riots

One thing is consistent in these attacks: they are almost always — with the exception of Pakistani shopkeepers — against Africans from other countries on the continent and rarely white non-nationals. When foreigners’ shops are looted and torched, when they are stoned and chased from settlements, the victims are often African non-nationals; when #ZimbabweansMustFall trended on Twitter it wasn’t against white Zimbabweans. Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave, who was beaten, stabbed and burned alive, was black. 

When personhood and the sanctity of life are determined by borders demarcated during colonisation, we stopped caring about each other and lost our ubuntu.

Decolonisation is a buzzword in South African sociopolitical discourse. Our usage of the word “decolonisation” describes the transfer of political power from colonialists to African sovereignty, but this assumes colonialism’s primary injustice was denying sovereignty over our land. In truth, the offences were deeper and more catastrophic. 

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of an independent Ghana, articulated that “independence means much more than merely being free to fly our own flag and to play our own national anthem”. He proposed uniting African countries under a continental, pan-African federation that would merge human and material resources because we preach decolonisation, yet Africa’s borders are the legacy of colonialism.

For Afrophobes, what determines who is a “true” citizen are borders. Africa’s modern state borders are a Western construct formulated in the Treaty of Westphalia. Current African borders resulted from agreements or conflicts between European countries — such as the Moroccan Agadir Crisis or the South African Wars — for the domination of resource-rich, strategically located African regions during the Scramble for Africa. This means decolonisation is a conversation we cannot have without interrogating our colonially imposed borders.

Because we were separated by colonial borders, Ndebele, Tswana, Tsonga, Khoisan, Xhosa, Sotho, Shangaan and Venda people live in both South Africa and Zimbabwe. Therefore, I identify with both Zimbabwean and South African culture. 

Like South Africa, my predominantly Nguni province (Matabeleland) listens to and produces amapiano, kwaito and gqom music. We have the same cuisine, cultural attire and even the same memes. Zimbabwean Ndebele and Zulu first names and proverbs are nearly identical. These shared identity markers prove colonisation’s artificially constructed borders, in conflict with true African communal relations. 

Afrophobia thus becomes an imported anti-African sentiment, which internalises colonialism because current state borders never existed in African societies.

Ironically, the masterminds of African borders practically eliminated borders in Europe by establishing the European Union, whose principle is economic and sociopolitical unity. A cornerstone of EU citizenship is freedom of movement, residence and employment — even social security benefits — for the citizens of any EU country. Yet we desperately cling to the very borders our former colonial masters realised would hinder our human development. 

Knowing the power of community and information-sharing, apartheid deliberately isolated black South Africans from the rest of the continent, fearing that independent Africans would radicalise them. South Africa’s intense prejudice and propaganda against our African brothers and sisters was inherited from apartheid’s harsh, racist immigration rules against black foreigners. 

This created in black South Africans the idea that theirs is an exceptional nation which must be “protected” from the so-called burdensome, criminal and troublemaking African migrants. The war isn’t against foreigners — it’s against black foreigners — and its weapons are an internalised colonial logic.

South Africans view relations with Africa in strictly utilitarian terms: what can Africa do for South Africa? That is not ubuntu, that is Western individualism. What about what South Africa can do for Africa? How about what Africa has already done for South Africa? Although African countries aided the anti-apartheid effort, this isn’t about historical score-setting. It’s about the principle that your success as an African nation is meaningless until other African states are successful because, as ubuntu posits, we are interdependent whether we like it or not. When our government is silent on our neighbouring countries’ human rights abuses, in return, we receive a refugee crisis because we are interconnected.

Colonialism was an individualistic enterprise in prioritising European self-interest at the expense of the African community. Whereas, Africanness is defined by prioritising community over individual interests, as expressed in the philosophy of ubuntu (and its North African equivalents like Ma’at) which has existed since time immemorial, and is summarised in the proverb: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of and through other people; I am because we are. In that vein, the concept of an African foreigner is rendered impossible if we exist through each other. Afrophobic individualism is un-African because the rhetoric of putting certain Africans first is a European concept inconsistent with ubuntu.

European culture generally focuses on the nuclear family, whereas African culture is communal; everyone is absorbed into a family. In townships, you can go two blocks away to ask for Ma Moyo’s tomatoes and she will freely offer them. In townships, everyone knows everyone, whereas in suburbs you can spend years not knowing your neighbour. Africans address every old person, even strangers, as our grandparents: uGogo loKhulu. Everyone your age is your brother and sister. Every older man and woman is your aunt and uncle, including the man always drunk on the bottle store stoep whom we respectfully call malume. Any African adult can discipline and spank your child because every African is your family. Individualism is not a system valued by Africans. Saying “go back where you came from” is a concept African philosophy does not understand because our cultural values hold that we can never exist outside our people.

The word ubuntu is casually thrown around as a kumbaya anthem, oversimplified without understanding its philosophical depth. It emphasises communality, interconnectedness, humaneness, morality, sharing, acceptance, justice, group solidarity, humanity, love, dignity, co-responsibility, compassion et cetera — values lacking in Afrophobic conduct.

 Ubuntu is so central to African existence that South Africa’s Constitution emphasises it, and South African courts frequently cite it in verdicts because the post-apartheid era realised the disasters of a South Africa without ubuntu. Ubuntu is the natural law of Africans; our higher, moral law intrinsically threaded into the tapestry of our existence.

Even in history, we see ubuntu’s centrality. King Moshoeshoe of the baSotho ruled according to ubuntu jurisprudence, extending friendship to his defeated enemies, providing land and protection to non-Sotho groups and integrating refugees and war victims. Zimbabwe’s Ndebele nation is not homogenous; it is the result of King Mzilikazi integrating numerous ethnicities into a diverse nation because, althogh different, we are a community with co-responsibility for each other. 

Afrophobes will say non-nationals must fix their problems, as though the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement, #eSwatiniIsBleeding and Nigerian #EndSARS protests never happened; forgetting that protesters are murdered, abducted, tortured, sexually assaulted and beaten up by state security forces. The nature of family is that when another family member makes life uncomfortable, the victim has a home with other family members. Ubuntu means solidarity, accepting refugees with compassion, but South Africa is insensitive to African suffering. 

So, how would ubuntu remake the fabric of society, in line with its key values?

  • Justice, sharing and compassion: Re-learning how to co-exist respectfully; the government would redistribute resources equitably (instead of misappropriating funds at the expense of South Africans) — money which could improve public services and economic conditions for all;
  • Co-responsibility and solidarity: Unlearn prejudices and use your citizen privilege to educate on Afrophobia;
  • Humaneness and dignity: During xenophobic crises, instead of recording videos of non-nationals’ dehumanisation and long, painful deaths, pressure law enforcement and defence forces to immediately protect vulnerable immigrants;
  • Communality and solidarity: Call out leaders — former health minister Aaron Motsoaledi made Afrophobic statements and King Goodwill Zwelithini instigated anti-foreigner populism yet denied it was xenophobia (I suppose water is not H2O);
  • Morality and justice: South Africa’s government has been complicit in its “liberation war-pact” with Zimbabwe’s authoritarian regime, yet it has the bargaining power to pressure Zanu-PF to reform. But regional and continental organisations such as the African Union are a gentlemen’s club of dictators who ignore other dictators; state leaders giving half-hearted moral condemnations against authoritarian governments that democratic ruling parties are friendly with; corrupt ruling parties ignore equally corrupt foreign ruling parties. Were oppressive and corrupt governments held accountable — because “non-interference” contradicts ubuntu — refugees wouldn’t have to flee; and

Justice and fairness: Demand our leaders observe ubuntu by no longer using non-nationals as a scapegoat for government’s mismanagement of resources — an unsustainable solution because neo-apartheid power structures that short-change citizens still exist, as African leaders merely replaced colonial leaders without structural change.

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Zoleka Mazibuko
Zoleka Mazibuko is a third-year BA student at the University of Pretoria studying law, political science and French. She is a passionate blogger, creative writer, fine artist and professional debater. Follow her at https://twitter.com/zoelekka?lang=en and https://www.instagram.com/zoemazie/

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