In 2014, I was privileged to join a group of young Africans in the USA under the flagship program of President Barrack Obama – Obama Young African Leaders Initiative, now called Mandela Washington Fellowship. For 7 – 8 weeks, I was paced in New York’s Syracuse University under the Public Management Cohort. During this fellowship, I interacted with many young Africans, including those from SA. In the wake of recent xenophobic attacks, a fellow participant from SA (whom I now call brother) wrote me the following:
“Sorry is not enough but I really am sorry to all my African brothers and sisters. I have inflicted excruciating pain, hurt and soreness. I have become untrustworthy and overtly paraded my barbaric behaviour over my fellow brothers and sisters and I have immensely disrespected my fellow Africans. I am sorry.”
Clearly, the pain about xenophobic attacks is shared by many not only direct victims but also wider patriotic South Africans. Whilst the happenings in SA cannot be excused for anything, and that they should be condemned to the maximum, my experience compels me to argue that there is need to avoid generalisations of SA. I believe many Zambians and Africans like me have experienced the brotherhood and goodness of SA in different ways. But how can we understand the problems facing SA today? How can a country that promised so much to the younger generation be hotspot for xenophobic attacks?
In exploring these questions, it is important to note society does not just raise up from without. Drawing from Rosa Luxembourg, any system of a society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realisation, as a result of the developments of living history. Sadly, the history of SA is the history of violence, exploitation, exclusion and economic dispossession. To emerge from such a past requires great leadership – a somewhat of all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, requiring immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people. Sadly, SA is in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been. As Fanon notes, “these are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity.” Clearly, SA has become a country of many realities, far from the encompassing nature of the immediate post- apartheid regime. In a speech titled ‘I am an African, made by on behalf of the African National Congress in Cape Town on 8 May 1996, then then Vice President Thabo Mbeki cast open his beliefs of what SA was to become:
“…I have seen our country torn asunder as these, all of whom are my people, engaged one another in a titanic battle, the one to redress a wrong that had been caused by one to another and the other, to defend the indefensible. I have seen what happens when one person has superiority of force over another, when the stronger appropriate to themselves the prerogative even to annul the injunction that God created all men and women in His image. I know what it signifies when race and colour are used to determine who is human and who, sub-human…..Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage. To these the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare.
And so, like pawns in the service of demented souls, they kill in furtherance of the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal. They murder the innocent in the taxi wars. They kill slowly or quickly in order to make profits from the illegal trade in narcotics. They are available for hire when husband wants to murder wife and wife, husband……All this I know and know to be true because I am an African! …..Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now! Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!”
How did Mbeki project these dynamics more than two decades ago? Whilst Mbeki’s speech defined the political mood of the moment in post-apartheid SA, overtime the political leadership of SA has failed to demonstrate commitment to addressing fundamental elements of rights, social economic development, inequality and economic exclusion. I believe this has nothing to do with immigrants as some social commentators seem to argue. In fact, I don’t believe it has anything to do with the underdevelopment of wider Africa. Rather, what I find interestingly – at least intellectually – is how Mbeki’s speech in the 1990s somewhat captures challenges facing SA today: political violence, drugs, prostitution etc are exactly what underpin xenophobic attacks in SA today. For a long time, successive political regimes in SA have failed to address these issues.
I return to the beginning that xenophobic attacks in SA are unfortunate but help highlight three fundamental issues. The first relates to the historical nature of the challenges facing SA, requiring that any current analysis and understanding of the problems in the country should account for the political processes shaping historical state formation and its implications. The second relates to the challenges of post-apartheid era where the native bourgeoisie of the former liberation struggle are somewhat unfit to do the nation-building necessary to benefit all the people in the country. The final element points to lessons for politics that ignoring social economic and cultural issues facing a society does little to take them away and that ignored societal problems become entrenched and then somewhat resurface and project themselves later sometimes in an ugly way. And here lies the problem for SA.
(Simon Manda, PhD is a lecturer at the University of Zambia and a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow).